Why keeping power in check is a pipe dream in Southern Africa

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By Vusumuzi Sifile

One thing was very clear during the commemoration of World Press Freedom Day on 3 May 2018: the unquestionable public appreciation of the role of the media in speaking truth to power, advancing good governance, transparency, accountability, justice and the rule of law. This was evident in the manner in which various stakeholders – from different sectors — came out in their numbers to join media practitioners in commemorating this day.

This year’s commemoration was under the theme Keeping Power in Check: Media, Justice and The Rule of Law. This theme challenged the media to position itself to promote accountability and transparency in management of public resources, as well as advancing justice and the rule of law in southern Africa. It also challenged various stakeholders to accord the media its rightful position as the fourth estate in the democratic set-up. Marches, exhibitions, public lectures and other events were held in most parts of southern Africa to express solidarity with the media and amplify the call for press freedom in the region.

While such solidarity means a lot to the media fraternity, more needs to be done in order for the media to truly keep power in check and advance justice and the rule of law. On the eve of the World Press Freedom Day, a media colleague Kasebamashila Kaseba stated on a private TV station in Zambia that instead of the media keeping power in check, those in power are the ones who are keeping the media in check.

They determine what the media covers or does not cover. This has created an unpleasant situation where journalists and other media practitioners are forced into silence or censorship, only churning out content that will not get them into trouble with those keeping them in check.

Such a situation is not helpful to the media and to the public, which the media serves.

The support to the media sector must not be a “one hit wonder”. It must be a part of our daily routine. Each one of us has a role to play in supporting the media to keep power in check. The support can be in the form of data or information, funding, equipment, and other forms of support that can position the media to keep power in check. The limited technical and financial capacity of most media actors in the region puts them in a compromised position.

The following are some of the areas that we need to reflect on

  1. Policy and regulation:In a number of southern Africa countries, the policy and regulation environment is a major hindrance to the media’s ability to keep power in check. While some countries, such as South Africa and Malawi have laws that guarantee access to information, the enforcement of those laws is largely inadequate. In countries like Zambia, the debate on the Access to Information legislation has been ongoing for years, without any breakthrough. In Zimbabwe, the Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act (AIPPA) and the Broadcasting Services Act have been used to clamp down on freedom of expression and access to information. Calls to repeal or amend laws such appear to be falling on deaf ears.There is need to address the media policy, legislation and regulation framework in the region to create an environment where media practitioners are not restricted by unnecessary provisions.
  2. Economic challenges:The revenue base for most media operations appears to be shrinking. A number of media entities, especially community radio entities have been forced to either scale down or completely stop their operations because of economic challenges manifesting through high newsprint costs and high equipment costs, among others. While the input costs are going up, the revenue bases are shrinking. In most cases, the government remains the biggest advertiser, and most media houses – public, private and community – appear to be scrambling for government advertisements. This creates an awkward situation where on one end, the media houses have to hold the government to account, while on the other, they have to play nice to the authorities in order to attract advertisements. There is need for collective stakeholder efforts to address the economic barriers that limit the media’s ability to keep power in check.
  3. Training and capacity building:The media industry is evolving at a tremendous rate. This raises a need for media practitioners to constantly refresh and renew their skills in order to stay on top of the game. This calls for increased investment in building the capacity of media practitioners in terms of content development – producing compelling content that will enable them to be outstanding, and in terms of using new technologies to maximise on the value for money. As media practitioners – we need to adapt or we die.

There is an urgent need to address the barriers to the growth of a free, strong and independent media sector in southern Africa. Without it, keeping power in check will remain a pipedream in most cases.

Vusumuzi Sifile is the knowledge management and communications manager for Panos Institute Southern Africa, a regional communication for development organisation based in Lusaka. For feedback, email: vusa@panos.org.zm.

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