Friday, December 9, 2011

Back home, and writing for Zambia papers

In the Johannesburg airport I wrote the following piece, at the request of Antony Mukwita, deputy managing director (effectively editor-in-chief) of the Zambia Daily Mail. I sent it to him from the Atlanta airport, where I am now (Internet in Jo'burg is problematic). I did different versions for The Post and the Times of Zambia, but am giving the Mail first shot because Antony had the idea. His paper was the first I met wit but that was the luck of the draw.

By Al Cross
University of Kentucky
The elections of Sept. 20 confirmed that Zambia is a functioning, full-fledged democracy, with perhaps one major exception: Its government lacks the transparency that is needed to guarantee that the citizens can hold it accountable and prevent corruption.
This writer came to Zambia from the United States for nine days recently to help Zambians make progress on a Freedom of Information Act, a law that would make government records easily accessible to the public. The new government endorsed an open-records act before and after the election, and set itself a deadline to pass it, in about five months from now.
I congratulate the government on its stands, but hope it is not trying to assemble a working majority in Parliament before getting to work on this important legislation, because it should be a government bill in name only. It should have the support of MPs from all parties, and should not be identified as a partisan issue, because it is intended to serve the public at large and not give advantage to any party, faction or person.
Passage of open-records laws in other countries have generally not been partisan issues. In the U.S., our Freedom of Information Act was passed in 1966 with the signature of Democratic President Lyndon Johnson and the sponsorship of Republican congressman Donald Rumsfeld, who much later was George W. Bush’s secretary of defense. The law maintains broad support in both parties.
As a long-time political reporter in the U.S., a two-time visitor to Zambia and someone who met with permanent secretaries of key ministries on my recent visit, I surely understand that some PF leaders may feel more cautious about an open-records law now that they are in government. Yes, such a law might be used against them, but there are many more records of the previous government that could be used against the opposition. What’s good for the goose will be good for the gander.
That’s one reason open-records laws are not, and should not be, partisan issues. They apply equally to everyone in government, and they allow everyone to hold the government accountable. Only those with something to hide should fear such laws.
The principle of government transparency for accountability, and prevention of corruption, has been generally recognised in democracies around the world for nearly a century. Many decades ago, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis, my fellow Kentuckian, wrote in a decision, “Sunlight is the best disinfectant.” That’s why Americans often call open-government statutes “sunshine laws.”
Here’s another analogy: Open-records laws are like flashlights, which citizens can use to shine in the dark corners of government to expose and prevent wrongdoing. That was illustrated during an open discussion at the Mulungushi Conference Center Wednesday evening, by a story from Kofu Kabela of the Zambia Civic Education Association.
He told us about a head teacher at a school in a rural area who was getting government money for the school but using it to buy cattle instead of helping the school and the children. The teacher wouldn’t let the school’s parent-teacher association president see the school accounts even though the president was a co-signatory on the account!
Such outrages need to be exposed, or prevented, and that is what open-records laws can do. I know that, as a former president of the Society of Professional Journalists in the U.S. SPJ advocates freedom of information, but journalists are not the main users of open-records laws; ordinary citizens are. There aren’t enough journalists to expose and prevent all the wrongs that government officials can do; citizens must be a part of Zambia’s battle against corruption.
Because of my background in journalism and politics, I was asked to give Zambians advice on the topic, and I put into three categories: politics, principles and pitfalls.
As mentioned above, the politics should not be partisan. The PF government should fulfill its campaign promise, and other parties should join it as a matter of public interest.
The law should state some basic principles that will make it clear and strong, and give guidance to judges and other officials who will be asked to interpret it and its exceptions, which should be limited and clear.
For example, the Kentucky open-records law says records are presumed to be open, and the exceptions should be narrowly construed, without regard to possible inconvenience or embarrassment of a government official. This reflects the principle that officials do not own government records, but merely hold them in trust for the citizens.
Also, the exceptions to openness should be clear and limited, to such matters as national security, purely personal privacy, ongoing investigations, proprietary business information and preliminary recommendations of people in government.
The law should be easy and inexpensive for citizens to use, and avoid pitfalls of implementation. Citizens should have a right to inspect the records before asking for copies, or be able to order copies by mail, and the charge for copies should reflect their actual cost. (In Kentucky, we do not allow governments to charge for staff time used to find records and make copies.)
If an official denies access to a record, there should be an easy and inexpensive way to appeal the denial, without involving lawyers, and the decision should be made by an official with at least some degree of independence from the government. In many U.S. states, that is the independently elected attorney general. In Zambia, that could be someone confirmed by Parliament, so the official would be accountable to more than just the government or the ruling party.
These are just a few of the issues that will need sorting out as Zambians take this important step to perfect their democracy. I have come to know Zambia as a beautiful country with huge potential, and Zambians as a people who want it to realise that potential and not see its great assets wasted. A Freedom of Information Act opening government records to citizens would be a major step in that direction.

Al Cross is director of the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues and an associate professor in the School of Journalism and Telecommunications at the University of Kentucky. He writes a political column for The (Louisville) Courier-Journal, where he was chief political writer from 1989 to 2004.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Last day in Zambia is hectic

Today's post must be short, at least for now, because Internet access is problematic and my last day in Zambia is a hectic one. I had hoped for an easy getaway day tomorrow, but U.S. Ambassador Mark Storella asked for a meeting and so did the Zambian Home Ministry, which we have had trouble scheduling.

This afternoon at the U.S. Embassy I met with academics and civic leaders who want a Freedom of Information Act, and showed them the video that the Scripps Howard First Amendment Center produced to help officials follow Kentucky's open-government laws. The most telling line in the video was from Al Smith, who says that before the Open Records Act journalists got records "by charm or being on the side of the people who controlled" the records. That's the way it is in Zambia. The video was well received.

Tonight I was one of two panelists at a public meeting sponsored by the Press Freedom Committee of The Post, Zambia's only privately owned daily newspaper. A crowd of about 70 people asked many interesting questions, and I'll expand my report later.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Hands-on journalism at the troubled Times of Zambia

I spent most of the day at the Times of Zambia, the nation's oldest newspaper but perhaps the most threatened of its three dailies. The Times and the Daily Mail are owned by the government, and the new ruling party has said it wants to privatize them, but some question whether there is a market to support three national dailies. "There is a bit of of hope," Deputy Managing Director Nick Shabolyo told me in an interview, acknowledging later, "You really wouldn't believe the kind of trouble we're going through."

When the newly elected government appointed new directors and deputies for the two papers on Oct. 21, its choices led to a fresh divergence between two papers that had similarly toed the ruling-party line during the run-up to the Sept. 20 election. The Mail, under a new deputy director with a magazine and wire-service background, became livelier, experimented with different writing styles, and gained circulation. The Times, headed by more traditional journalists, has proceeded more carefully and has lagged behind business-wise, though its journalism is generally less sensational that that of the Mail or The Post. "If you're looking for serious, accurate news, this is where to find it," Shabolyo said. "The Post is serious, but it accommodates both sides."

After the election season, in which the paper "Nobody wanted to advertise in this propaganda newspaper," said Shabolyo, who as deputy managing director runs the news operation but also has to worry about revenues. "We really went bad in terms of sales and circulation," declining to about 8,000, but are now "gaining every week" and are back above 12,000. He said he doubted the 15,000 figure claimed by his counterpart at the Mail.

The Times plans to announce organizational changes next week, Shabolyo said, but what it really needs is financial "breathing space" from the government, which he said owes the paper close to 4 billion kwacha (almost $800,000) for advertising and subscriptions. If the government decides to keep one paper, he said, it would probably be the Times, because of its historic nature and ties to the government, especially the first administration after independence in 1964.

I started the day at the Times by attending the morning news meeting, at which Shabolyo made suggestions and asked questions about many stories, then sat in on the daily conference call between the paper's office in the capital of Lusaka and its headquarters and production site in Ndola, four hours north. Then I met with Bob Sianjalika, a Times veteran who as political editor supervises most of the paper's hard-news gathering. In the afternoon I edited two reporters' stories. More on them and Bob later; time for my next meeting!

Monday, December 5, 2011

An inspiring day at The Post

This post will be shorter than planned because I'm doing it standing up, at the only place in my room with enough signal strength to blog! (The hotel's business center closes at 7 p.m.) These posts are made three hours earlier than indicated; the posting time is Pacific.

I had an inspiring day at The Post, the only privately owned daily newspaper in Zambia. Few papers can say they changed the course of their country, but this one can. There seems to be general agreement that if The Post had not revealed the corruption, pitfalls and peccadilloes of the government that was ousted in the Sept. elections, that party, the Movement for Multiparty Democracy, would still be in power.

Some reporters said they worried that the victory by the Patriotic Front, which had used The Post as its main information outlet, would mean that the newspaper would go easier on the new government. "This is the government that we have literally put in place," said reporter-photographer Joseph Mwenda, who also updates the paper's website. They said that concern has evaporated, with stories and editorials revealing and criticizing questionable appointments by the new president, Michael Sata.

Today I helped Mwenda update the site, with a story in which Sata said he dismissed Amnesty International's demand that he arrest former President George W. Bush during his recent visit because the group "haven't given us the facts," and I helped Assistant News Editor Speedwell Mupuchi edit a story by Moses Kuwema about Transparency International's Corruption Perception Index, in which Zambia again improved only slightly. The survey was taken before the election; Muwenda, one of many young, sharp, dedicated journalists at the paper, said he expects the new government to greatly improve the nation's rating because "It has embraced the anti-corruption message of The Post."

I asked Managing Editor Sam Mujuda of the paper will be as tough on the new government as the old one. "It will depend on the government sticking to its policy," he said. The Patriotic Front's platform included a Freedom of Information Act. Mujuda, who is also a lawyer and media-law lecturer, said he expects Parliament to pass the law, but "I've told my students the media doesn't need the freedom-of-information bill. The public needs it more."

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Sunday update

No coverage on ZNBC tonight or last night, though they did find time for a story on a news writer who got married. We may try again; the interviewer wasn't really prepared for the interview, and thought I was just there to make a statement. One upside for today is that The Post ran an ad on its back page about its Press Freedom Committee meeting set for Wednesday night, listing the speakers, including your humble servant.

Sunday was a great day with one big exception. I had a wonderful game drive in the Chaminuka preserve, about an hour out a washboard dirt road from Lusaka, and a nice lunch with a couple from London on their third visit here. But I also lost most of a filling from the inside of a lower molar, and as the day went on, talking and chewing raised a blister on the side of my tongue. Since talking (after listening) is the main thing I am here to do, we'll be locating a dentist today.

Monday's schedule puts me at The Post, the only privately owned daily paper and one that has probably made a significant difference in the future of this country. Now some of its people and friends are in the government, but that has not kept it from criticizing the new president's choices for a committee to draft a new constitution. I look forward to learning more about The Post and how it goes about its work.

Saturday, December 3, 2011

Saturday update

ZNBC didn't use its interview with me last night; I'll watch tonight, hopefully as I flip back and forth between it and the UK-North Carolina game. And I didn't get to see George W. Bush; the meet-and-greet event at the U.S. embassy was for embassy employees only.

Friday, December 2, 2011

Making the case for a Zambian FOIA

Not all journalists in Zambia believe the country needs a Freedom of Information Act. That was made clear today at the government-owned ZNBC television network, when my interviewer implicitly questioned whether a "developing democracy" such as Zambia really needs such a law or is ready for it. He wasn't playing devil's advocate.

I responded by subtly challenging his premise, saying that Zambia's recent election had proven that it was functioning pretty well as a democracy, and that passage of a FOIA would be a logical next step in its development. I tried to debunk the common notion that having such a law is only of interest to journalists; I said I have told government officials here (and seen some eyes roll) that a democratic government doesn't really own records, it holds them in trust for the public, because it is the public that the government must serve, and the public needs records to hold the government fully accountable.

Passing a Zambian FOIA may be difficult. It would be the first in sub-Sarahan Africa, and perhaps the entire continent. It will probably need to go hand-in-hand with self-regulation of the news media, which I also discussed on ZNBC. I used the British Press Complaints Commission (described in an earlier item) as an example. I led off by saying I was the first of five UK faculty members who will be coming to Zambia over the next five months.

It will be interesting to see what airs on ZNBC's 7 p.m. news. At that hour I will lose my easy access to the Internet, so this item will be updated. I halfway expected them to hold the piece until the weekend, because of the George W. Bush visit today and tomorrow, but the interviewer said he expected it to run tonight. (His given name was Godfrey but he didn't have a card so his last name will also have to come later.)

My other interview today was a live one at Q FM, a station that mixes African pop music with news and occasional interviews. In that interview I made most of the same points but said more about my initial visit to Zambia, a year and a half ago, and how there no longer seems to be much debate about statutory vs. self regulation. I also mentioned the ethics code of the Society of Professional Journalists and repeated the URL, (

I was scheduled to meet with officials at the Home Ministry today, but like a meeting we have yet to have at another government ministry, this one had to be rescheduled a second time. It seems having a new government, by a party that has never governed and succeeded one that had power for 21 years, creates almost-daily crises in Parliament or elsewhere.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Another lively day at the Zambia Daily Mail

I spent most of the day at the Zambia Daily Mail, talking with editors, reporters and the staff photographer, who was among journalists assaulted today by relatives and other supporters of a former national official who was charged with receiving stolen property after cash worth more than $400,000 was found buried on his property. Mackson Wasamunu wasn't hurt, but a staffer from the Times of Zambia reportedly suffered a cut on the hand. Wasamunu said it wasn't the first time he had been assaulted by people trying to thwart news coverage.

It was another lively day at the Mail, which has become livelier newspaper since new management took over in October following the elections that gave the government to the longtime opposition party. The paper is one of two owned by the government, which nationalized them in 1972, but from time to time it has published articles critical of government officials. That has become more frequent since the September election, but editors told me the run-up to the election was difficult. One said, "In the last three years we experienced unprecdented interference. . . . There was massive interference with Page 1, Page 2, Page 3."

Since then, editors said, there has been no such interference. New President Michael Sata has said he wants to privatize the newspapers, but there are many questions about how that would be done. The Mail's own website acknowledges it lacks a sustainable business model.

The more independemt Mail has attracted more attention and readership. Antony Mukwita, the paper's deputy managing director and Page 1 editor, said circulation has increased to 15,000 from about 10,000. "People are seeing a balance now," he said. While American journalists wouldn't like the sensational aspects of the paper (which are not that much different from the other two papers), Mukwita said its philosophy is to be an honest and candid "mirror of the nation."

The candor is sometimes stark and sexual, with stories about infidelity and personal issues. One in today's print edition was focused on court testimony about the size of a husband's genitals. I asked Judith Konayuma, the Gender Desk editor, what she thought about such coverage. "The idea isto show our readers the extent of rottenness in our society," she said. Her desk produces stories on women's and family issues, and men's issues, too. Her example of that was coverage of the Men's Network, which involves men in the effort to stem domestic violence.

Konayuma and other editors said newspaper circulation in Zambia is low, despite its 80 percent literacy rate, because it is an oral culture where people prefer to learn by word of mouth and know which neighbor to ask if they want to read something in a newspaper. "The newspaper industry in Zambia is a tricky business," she said. I plan to learn more about it in my visits next week with the Times of Zambia and The Post. Tomorrow I meet with government officials and broadcast interviewers to discuss a proposed Freedom of Information Act and a self-regulation process for the Zambian news media.