Mandy’s Matrix: The Zambian media rethink

2011-11-02 07:54

When power changes hands in a government, a media house sympathetic to government is in trouble.

In Zambia, the two main newspapers – the Times of Zambia and the Daily Mail – have to rethink their existence since the elections, something they did not need to do for the 20 years while the Movement for Multi-Party Democracy ruled their front pages.

These newspapers were bought by government from private owners in the 1960s so that the development work by government could be showcased to the people.

It is the kind of newspapers the ANC would love to have in South Africa. Stories have no hint of controversy, they just dutifully report what a minister said at the tree-planting/ribbon cutting/prize-giving ceremony with no mention of itchy topics such as corruption allegations (which there were a lot of), hotel stays or succession battles.

But for this they paid a price. Collectively, the newspapers sell about 20 000 copies per day nationally, while their rival, The Post, clocks more than 60 000.

According to Zambian editors and journalists, the government did not directly fund these newspapers, and I believe them.

The newspaper buildings with adjacent printing presses are so run down it makes The Star headquarters in Sauer Street, Johannesburg, look like a swanky media outfit.

But observers say the newspapers may not get regular cash injections. There was, however, a donation of 4x4s during the election campaign for reporters to cover rural areas.

And government does tend to look the other way when newspapers fail to pay taxes.

Government advertising has found a permanent home in these newspapers – a move that Jimmy Manyi would find admirable.

The editors here are called managing directors and they are appointed by a board which is appointed by government.

According to local journalists, you are tainted for life when you work for these papers.

A former managing editor can attest to this. Six years after getting fired, she is still unemployed.But it used to have job security, they say. If you toed the line, you got the goodies.

Journalists here will never be able to buy Mercs on their salaries, but they get to travel with the president and see the world.

So yes, your credibility is in tatters, but your future is secure, because why would a government that’s been in charge for 20 years lose the vote?

Until it does.

Now both newspapers are in trouble. Signals from the new government are mixed.

Newly appointed president Michael Sata and his information minister, Given Lubinda, say they will let the two newspapers be, but already the two top officials at each of the papers have been replaced.

The only independent Zambian paper is The Post, which has made up for the lack of exposure President Sata has received from the state media.

Some senior editors of The Post are now his spin doctors, perhaps rewarding for The Post for years of “oppositionist reporting” – as Gwede Mantashe would say.

The new bosses at the state media have a dilemma. They have inherited divided newsrooms – one group grumpy because their luck has run out, the other saying “we told you so”.

They get pressure from the new elite to hire and fire some reporters who were not good to them during the Banda years.

They have mountains of libel cases that arose from poorly sourced articles that slandered Sata and his key lieutenants.

And they have zero money, dodgy distribution networks and no credibility with the public any more, who apparently stopped buying these newspapers in the run-up to the elections because of their relentless biased reporting.

The obvious route to go is to privatise, and in a market not yet saturated with smartphones and internet connections, try to buy some credibility back.

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