There is journalism, and then there’s investigative journalism. I believe the latter is a journalism genre that requires one to possess a specific skill set and, more importantly, a thick skin, an eye for detail and a good nose to smell a rat.
On the one hand, investigative journalism benefits citizens as it unearths stories that ordinarily would not come to light, such as corrupt practices by government officials, systemic abuse of power by quasi-government institutions, fraud, money laundering and human trafficking. On the other hand, investigative journalism puts the journalist at high personal risk. Frequently, at the centre of these suspicious activities are powerful and influential people who go to great lengths to ensure that their interests are safeguarded.
A submission by the Zambia Media Women Association (ZAMWA) to the Parliamentary Committee on Media, Information and Communication Technologies titled Investigative Journalism in Zambia, quoted the United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) defining investigative journalism as the “revealing of concealed matters by someone in a position of authority, either intentionally or unintentionally, behind a chaotic mass of facts and circumstances”. Furthermore, the ZAMWA submission added that this is a “form of journalism in which reporters go in-depth to investigate a story that uncovers corruption, review government policies or expose the wrongdoings of a corporate entity or even draw attention to social, economic and political-cultural trends” (see https://zamwa.wordpress.com/431-2).
Investigative journalism has not been a prominent feature of Zambian journalism. Since independence, the Zambian media has been used as a tool for state propaganda and pushed a narrative that supports the government’s agenda.
During the one-party state under the Leadership of His Excellence, Dr. Kenneth David Kaunda, the media ensured that it portrayed a good image of the United National Independence Party (UNIP) administration. It was not until the early 90s, with the imminent fall of the one-party system, that several privately owned media were established.
As Zambia began the transition from a single-party state to a multi-party and democratic rule, the media environment underwent a significant transformation, giving rise to a more balanced and objective form of journalism. During this period, investigative journalism was introduced to the Zambian community, forming an integral part of democratic accountability and public trust, especially in an era of fake news (see https://zamwa.wordpress.com/431-2).
Although many factors contributed to the rise of investigative journalism, the main thrust was a demand for knowledge by the Zambian people. In my opinion, this was a time when Zambia was experiencing a failing economy, prompting citizens to demand answers about how the nation got to such a low point. Of course, the state-owned media wasn’t giving away much when it came to the behind-the-scenes dealings of the governing party. On the contrary, they worked hard to ensure that the Zambian people were not privy to this sensitive information.
The public’s thirst for information created the right conditions for the private sector to evolve and take advantage of this newfound demand for information. At this point, people were tired of the one-sided narrative propounded by one political party and turned to private media.
Private media had a monumental task in that investigative journalism demanded that journalists and media houses invest a lot of time, effort and money. It also required journalists to take on a fearless yet fair approach. This saw the birth of the Weekly Post newspaper, which became known simply as The Post, moving from weekly to daily publications due to increased demand. To further assert itself on the market as an investigative publication, The Post’s mission statement was “the paper that digs deeper”. A statement they lived up to as they uncovered and reported on issues that would ordinarily have remained hidden. But this new reporting style came at a high price for private media houses and journalists.
By the early 2000s, investigative journalists were being persecuted by influential people in the new government. I feel this deterred journalists and media houses that wanted to venture into this genre of journalism and contributed to the fall of investigative journalism in Zambia.
The decline has been so drastic over the years that I sometimes wonder whether investigative journalism still exists in the country. Most of today's print and electronic media content is repetitive due to the culture of ‘copy and paste’. It is almost as if journalists are more interested in running with unfounded, half-baked and unverified stories than uncovering the truth in the nation’s interests. For this reason, articles are often generated from one source and distributed to most media outlets.
The biggest culprits of this are online media institutions. Perhaps this divergence from fact-finding to chasing sensational stories based on hearsay can be attributed to both the cost and consequences of investigative journalism. However, the easy route also comes with a high price for democracy and accountability. A likely reason for chasing sensational news content is that it is cheaper to disseminate unverified information rather than conduct proper investigations. It is a known fact that investigative journalism comes at a financial cost that many media houses are not willing to pay. The little to no investment by media owners when it comes to skills training, capacity building and paying decent salaries to journalists has dire consequences. Unfortunately, journalists in Zambia are paid very low salaries. The ripple effect is that most are de-motivated, compromised, unethical and unprofessional, leading to a culture of sub-standard work output (see https://fesmedia-africa.fes.de/africanmediabarometer/amb-blog, https://fesmedia-africa.fes.de/news/the-decline-of-media-ethics-and-professionalism-in-zambia).
The Africa Media Barometer (AMB) Zambia report 2021, Sector 1 (1.6), observed that although the Public Interest Disclosure Act of 2010 protected whistleblowers to an extent, the provisions of the new Cyber Crimes Acts superseded this law. Furthermore, the AMB cited occasions where media houses had testified against their sources, as in the case of Muvi TV. In this instance, a local television station was asked to release the entire recording of what a human rights activist said during an aired program.
Laws such as the Cyber Crime Act impede investigative journalism. It is very difficult for journalists to obtain information if they cannot protect their sources from prosecution. As such, it is almost impossible to expose corruption and misuse of public funds.
In Zambia, it is difficult to access public information from holders of public offices. When researching for my Masters Dissertation on Performance Management in the Public Service in Zambia, obtaining records and documents on salary structures for public servants and other related information was impossible. Even conducting interviews with civil servants was difficult until I assured them of anonymity. This personal experience ties in with the findings of the 2021 Zambia AMB, Sector 1 (1.7), which affirms that “it remains a struggle to get public information in Zambia even a student doing research who looks for information from a public institution will battle and need to know how to outmanoeuvre them”. The report further attributes this to an “ingrained culture of secrecy in public institutions, with public servants obsessed with secrecy”.
From my interaction with public servants from various government ministries, I squarely place blame for this culture of secrecy on the fear of facing harsh punishment for divulging information. A former civil servant disclosed to the media in a written address to senior civil servants that, upon employment into the civil service, he was briefed that everything concerning his work would be considered a secret unless further written instructions were given. This included conditions of service for civil servants (see www.zambianobserver.com/senior-civil-servants-get-off-social-media).
Additionally, a high level of suspicion is placed on civil servants regarding government loyalty. Some civil servants have, in confidence, admitted to me that it is risky to give out public information as one can easily be accused of working against the government and risk losing their job. This is evident by the number of civil servants fired on suspicion of working with opposition political parties during the PF-led administration. Some of these civil servants have since been reinstated in the new government, as their dismissal was deemed unfair and unwarranted. This is not to say that civil servants are more open to divulging information to journalists with the change of government under the UPND administration (see www.lusakatimes.com/2022/05/23/upnd-mps-calls-that-98-of-the-civil-servants-are-pf-and-should-be-fired-is-sad-atonio-mwanza and www.dailynationzambia.com/2023/01/civil-service-polarised).
In my view, this culture will only see a significant shift when a deliberate law is enacted that gives journalists and members of the public free access to public information held by both public and private institutions conducting business for the public. An Access to Information (ATI) Act would ensure the freedom of information and the right to knowledge.
Access to information is a human right as declared by Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Article 9 of the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights and Article 4 of the Declaration of Principles on Freedom of Expression in Africa. In Zambia, deliberations on an ATI Act started 21 years ago and are ongoing. Most recently, the Ministry of Information and Media proposed that the Bill undergo further review by getting feedback from all of Zambia’s 10 provinces. Many deem this suggestion unnecessary, considering the Bill has had so much input from all stakeholders over the years (see www.2022/03/29/government-plans-to-take-the-access-to-information-bill-to-10-provinces-for-fine-tuning-opposed and www.znbc.co.zm/news/ati-bill-t-be-taken-countrywide).
Moreover, enacting laws that protect journalists, their sources and whistleblowers from harassment, intimidation, and any dire consequences would be a game-changer. Currently, only whistleblowers who speak out against corruption are protected by Zambian law.
Until then, investigative journalism will come at a high cost to anyone who dares to venture into it. A cost that many are not willing to pay.
The author is the Executive Director of the Centre for Policy Dialogue (a local think-tank), host of a radio show called All Things Governance on Capital FM and a former columnist/political analyst for The Post Newspaper (now called The Mast). She is a graduate of the University of Zambia and an Alumna of the London School of International Business and the University of Northampton in the United Kingdom. She is currently a PhD candidate at the University of Zambia with a research title, Bias towards Ethical Transformational Leadership and Performance in Zambia’s Public Service.
The views expressed and conclusions made in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of fesmedia Africa, the Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung (FES), or the Media Institute of Southern Africa (MISA).