Taking journalists and their persecutors into the 21st century

Four months in jail with hard labour is hardly the kind of punishment you’d expect to be meted out to a mere journalist. It’s a form of repression you may have thought belonged to the distant past.

But in delivering exactly this draconian sentence to a media person earlier this month, a Zambian court has seen fit to defy modern enlightened opinion.

The victim of such a Neanderthal attitude is the heroic editor, Fred M’membe, founder of the Post. The paper is a long-standing independent crusader for democracy in his country. The “crime” that earned him this barbaric retribution was to publish a column by a US-based commentator criticising the Zambian judiciary for a reactionary decision.

That this decision has subsequently been overturned on appeal clearly did not enter the calculations of the magistrate who opted instead to impose harshness and humiliation on M’membe for supposed “contempt” by having published the column. The stand seems to have been blissfully blind to any sense of contempt that it elicits for the Zambian judiciary more widely.

Worsening the picture, subsequent appeals to President Rupiah Banda to pardon M’membe have been ignored. So there is now also government connivance in a gross violation of the basic tenets of press freedom.

The Zambian authorities, it seems, pay no heed to the fact that the eyes of the world are on Africa right now due to the efforts of a certain country in the neighbourhood. So, thank you, your Excellency Banda, for allowing the continuance of an iniquity which can sabotage the image-building potential of the soccer mega-event.

The outrageous out-datedness of Zambia’s courts and its top-most leader far outclass any problems of the press. Yet, this is not to say the press is perfect, or that journalists are always at the cutting edge of 21st-century practices.

In fact, the conservative character of much media is something that prompted a new report by the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ), titled “Unions in touch with the future”, released last month.

Trade unions in general are often bastions against changes, and organised journalists worldwide have often been hostile to the march of the modern. For instance, the rise of new media has seen many working journalists hit out at the democratisation of mass communication.

This is an understandable, albeit wrong-headed, response given the pressure on jobs in the conventional mainstream media that results from today’s ever-increasing competition for audiences and advertisers.

Urging members to embrace change
To its credit, the IFJ is now urging its members to embrace change rather than position themselves only as the rearguard resistance.

The IFJ report does indeed highlight many negatives happening to the quality of journalism as a result of contemporary change. Besides the loss of industry jobs and companies, these include:

  • Speed and volume of stories being valued above accuracy and depth;
  • Increasing stress for journalists who have to multi-skill and super-produce for multiple platforms;
  • Sensationalism at the expense of ethics; and
  • Cost-cutting for reporting and outsourcing editing to freelancers living a continent away from the story’s context.

But also in the IFJ report is recognition of advantages of the times, like access to more sources, more interaction with readers, and better ability to reach new audiences.

The report encourages journalists to see themselves as part of a wider community of communicators. That means less of a siege mindset, and more one that looks for potential allies rather than enemies.

The IFJ unsurprisingly underscores the special benefits to democracy of having a viable media industry with trained full-time journalists working in it.

At the same time, it urges this constituency to work with the rising tide of newcomers active in news and information. Journalist unions are encouraged to enlist bloggers, freelancers and “content producers” who work on websites.

What’s needed, says the IFJ, is reaching out to new media workers as “colleagues” and combining this with “clear, strong messages that underline the value of journalism in democracy and that reinforce the importance of quality and standards in journalism”.

There’s clear relevance there to the mistreatment of Fred M’membe. What’s also evident is that the international body of journalists is beginning to go with the grain of history. But we need governments like Zambia’s to align with a democratic culture and dispensation that is appropriate to our modern era.

  • Disclosure: The writer is supervising M’membe for a part-time PhD thesis. The IFJ report was also contributed to by the author.
  • This column is made possible by support from fesmedia Africa, the Media Project of the Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung in Africa, www.fesmedia.org. The views expressed in it are those of the author.
  • RSS feed for this column: http://www.mg.co.za/rss/guy-berger

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