Knight Fellows in Zambia: Slanted Election Coverage Adds to a Nationwide Culture of Misinformation

Oct 182011
  • Voting sites were flooded with hundreds of people lined up to cast their ballots. (Photo by Sarah Fradgley)

  • Teams of elections observers were deployed to observe the voting, counting and results of elections in Zambia. (Photo by Ebenzer Ajayi)

The Republic of Zambia is emerging from a recent presidential election resulting in the transfer of power from incumbent Rupiah Banda’s Movement for Multi-Party Democracy (MMD) to Michael Sata’s Patriotic Front (PF)—an election seen by most as fair, free, and effective (twice now has the opposition won the presidency). Unfortunately, explain two Knight International Journalism Fellows currently in the area, a distinct lack of media professionalism during the campaign resulted in inaccurate information, general distrust, and in some cases violence.

Much of the problem stems from a media tendency to openly take sides. “The government-owned media went overboard in covering MMD and Rupiah Banda while the Post took the extreme and covered the PF and Sata exclusively,” explains Zarina Geloo, a veteran health journalist in Zambia now working on health and development issues as a Knight Fellow. “It got to be so bad that the Law Association of Zambia actually tried to take ZNBC [Zambia National Broadcasting Company] to court for its extremely biased coverage of MMD.”

The media is likely to pick a preferred candidate, generally based on high-level association, she notes, highlight his life story, personality and character, and promote campaign activities. Unfavorable candidates are blacked out. As the campaign unfolded, “the reporting centered on who got the ‘mammoth’ crowd, who was booed and who had the most campaigns.”

Independent journalists struggle within this system. Media houses with existing political associations expect their reporters to toe the line, and reporters attempting to curry professional favor are reluctant to jeopardize their situation.

Edem Djokotoe, a Knight Fellow who spent over 20 years in Zambian media and is currently based in Malawi, has witnessed a growing hostility towards journalists. During the campaign, the Zambian media as a whole was largely denounced, intimidated and harassed, he says. Journalists representing the opposing party were barred from certain political events; others were beaten. In effect, he says, “the polarization of the media cost them their credibility as sources of news and information.”

Election reporting, Djokotoe concludes, “must go beyond the horse race and focus on constitutionalism, on governance, on the challenges facing ordinary people who only get to engage with the political process during elections.”