I have been greatly disappointed over the last 10 years or so at the sheer mediocrity in the field of journalism in Zambia. And what makes it all the more amazing is that our local journalists have much greater access to modern tools than those before them. They can Google anything within seconds, have 24 hour news by Satellite TV, can access millions of articles online and regularly go on trips abroad.
Yet they are failing in their noble craft and have been reduced to reproducing what this politician says and what that celebrity has done. The journalists of old from 30 years ago were miles better than the ones who currently churn out articles. Quality of radio and TV programs is getting worse in many respects.
I still recall with great affection seeing the late great Charles Mando intelligently grilling our politicians, including president Kenneth Kaunda, on the then Zambia Broadcasting Services. Those were the good old days of Maureen Nkandu, Marc Boti, Goretti Mapulanga, Harold Besa, Joseph Kuluneta, Ben Kangwa, Kenneth Maduma, Margaret Zimba, Emelda Yumbe; you name them.
There were powerful radio presenters like Leonard Kantumoya, Fred Chunga, Peter Mweemba, Doris Mulenga, Timmy Mvula, Matteo Phiri, Field Ruwe and Lawson Chishimba, not to forget the great newspaper writers of old such as Wizas Phiri, aka Kapelwa Musonda whose weekly Times of Zambia Tuesday column “Kapelwa Musonda on Tuesday” provided endless reading pleasure for many Zambians.
Times of Zambia had another great column “From my rocking chair” by one of their Editors, Marta Paynter which regularly corrected the bad English the author came across in Zambia. If Marta rose from the dead today, she would be horrified with the atrocious English of nowadays by our lazy journalists who can’t do a simple thing like press F7 on their keyboards in Microsoft Word to run a spell and grammar check. No, it is too much effort for them. But they have the energy and time to spend the whole day on Facebook and WhatsApp reading and forwarding fake news.
Our journalists of old were properly trained and consummate professionals who took their vocation seriously and worked tirelessly and passionately for many decades. Phiri wrote as Kapelwa Musonda for more than two decades. Yumbe retired after 34 years of service and Paynter worked at Times of Zambia for 45 years! I have trouble imagining the current new generation of journalists lasting that long in the business.
In all my early years regularly reading newspapers up to the time I left Zambia to study abroad in the early 1990s, I hardly recall seeing the utterly ridiculous spelling and grammar mistakes that I see nowadays on a daily basis. I can open any Zambian publication on any day on the Internet and I am almost always guaranteed to find a mistake. And not one, but several.
Even the state media which traditionally has been better at this has began worsening. We recently had a story in the Daily Mail referring to the first lady as “Esther Phiri” in the title. How??? Our journalists, even with spell checkers on their word processors and online dictionaries fail to distinguish between basic words like beaten and bitten, indicate and indict, crash and crush, sale and sell, etc.
When I tune into radio to hear the news, I regularly hear newscasters failing to read news properly. They often stumble and pause for several seconds when reading simple words. Foreign names mess them up. They obviously do not bother to go through the news transcript thoroughly beforehand. They don’t bother to find out from the Internet how to correctly pronounce foreign names, places and words.
And the worst part is how little investigative journalism and critical analysis there is, not to mention originality. Most of our media houses just copy and paste articles from each other or from international media. They hardly ask proper intelligent questions much of the time and rarely follow up stories properly to get to the bottom of things.
For example, to this day, I do not know whether Charmaine Musonda who was found with Chilanga Member of Parliament Keith Mukata when his guard was shot dead is his wife or his girlfriend. No journalist has bothered to find out and inform us as we keep reading conflicting stories in the media about her marital status. The Ruth Mbandu murder case has gone cold and I don’t see a single journalist going to the Police to properly question them after all suspects were acquitted for being tortured.
The State is currently losing cases left right and center and it seems no journalist has gone to the Director of Public Prosecutions Lillian Siyuni to ask her why she is wasting tax payer money prosecuting frivolous cases, knowing full well in advance they have no chance of succeeding.
No journalist has bothered to go to Mukobeko Maximum prison in Kabwe in the wake of Hakainde Hichilema being released to find out why it is so impossible for the prison authorities to install proper toilets and stop the inhuman conditions of subjecting inmates to doing a number two in a bucket.
No one has bothered to interview the five co-accused with Mr Hichilema who also spent 4 months in jail. Has any journalist asked Mr Hichilema’s children how the incarceration of their father affected them, what questions they are asked at school or how they coped during this trying period?
I am fairly certain Mr Hichilema would be more than willing to donate something from his tens of millions of Dollars to buy building materials to improve Chimbokaila and Mukobeko prisons. All the fat cats currently in prison would also donate money. I am 100% certain the prisoners would gladly volunteer to build the new structures themselves in record time.
Why doesn’t any journalist ask the Minister of Home Affairs Stephen Kampyongo over what will be done to decongest the prisons? Why has no media house actively exposed the scandal of remandees (who make up a third of the prison population) spending many years in jail without trial despite often being innocent?
Nevers Mumba recently raised what should ordinarily be a very big and hot issue of Zambia’s debt. He said Zambia’s real external debt is at least $16.6 billion, directly contradicting the Finance Minister who said it was only $7.2 billion. Yet much of the media has hardly reported enough on the issue.
It seems none of our journalists have gone to see Mr Mutati or Secretary to the Treasury Fredson Yamba to ask for a comment on the alleged debt that is more than twice greater than officially announced. They could have even talked to former Finance Ministers like Situmbeko Musokotwane, N’gandu Magande and Edith Nawakwi, or spoken to former retired Treasury Secretaries.
It seems to me that there is a lot of intellectual laziness. We have produced a generation of Zambians who cannot be bothered to make the effort to more effectively use their minds where it really matters. Our journalists are of course nothing more than a reflection of the wider society in which mediocrity thrives and is accepted as normal.
During the elections last year, I saw zero analysis in the media as the results unfolded with controversy surrounding them. DeadNBC was the worst culprit as they simply regurgitated ECZ results with no explanations or analysis of what they meant.
Yet these same journalists watch CNN, BBC, Fox News, NBC, etc and they saw for themselves the analysis during the US elections. Our friends in the West will produce graphs showing what it will mean when the results swing one way or another. They take you through all the permutations and combinations. They bring in election experts, former Congressmen, Senators, Statisticians and other pundits.
Our journalists do none of that. They fail to even do a basic copy and paste operation where it is acceptable to replicate. I really wonder where the TV license money goes. Or why DeadNBC cannot be more innovative and persuade Western donors to bring in experts to school their employees in what real journalism is.
Another unforgivable sin our media practitioners commit is failure to do basic research. I tune into radio programs and hear ignorant questions and comments being made. I often hear presenters discussing things they hardly know anything about because they cannot be bothered to do a simple Google search that takes 30 seconds. When the person being interviewed challenges the interviewers on something of fact, their ignorance is often exposed.
Yet when I watch programs like “Hard Talk” on BBC, I am always impressed how thoroughly the presenters research the subject matter. They quote the interviewees word for word, put the discussion in context and by the end of the program, you are ten times more informed. But not our intellectually lazy Zambian journalists.
To be fair, not all our media practitioners are bad and a few media houses are trying. But what is the solution to all this? Well, maybe we can start by demanding that every journalist should have got at least 60% in English before admitting them to journalism school. Or maybe we can create a standard industry entrance exam for all journalism schools so that we weed out the chaff. Or we can have an exam for a journalist to be accredited.
An out-of-the-box idea is for the management of all media houses (assuming they care enough about the issue) to begin penalizing sloppy journalism by inviting readers to point out mistakes. Every mistake costs K10 from the salary of the journalist and is paid to the reader who found it as cellphone airtime. Now that would solve the writing problem!
As for the other problems of failure to investigate and research, I am not sure there is a solution. If you have one, I am all ears.
PHOTO: Zambian journalist Marc Boti interviewing Zambian musician Larry Maluma on ZNBC in Lusaka, Zambia in 1990.