Africa’s “nanny-state” seeks to restrict discussions on radio call-in shows

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Call-in shows on African radio represent one of the more lively aspects of the growth of media on the continent. Anything from extra-marital affairs to the state of the Nation attracts energetic comment and discussion. However, the “nanny state” is never far away and as two recent incidents in Zambia and Namibia have shown, is quick to try and close down areas for potential discussion. For understandable reasons, many of Africa’s leaders are somewhat paranoid about controversy and the debate over freedom of expression is haunted by role played by radio in inciting the Rwandan genocide. The absence of accepted ground rules means that Government has plenty of room to lean on what it doesn’t like the sound of. But as Russell Southwood writes, this may simply force debate on to new media like SMS and owners of radio stations will be the losers.

Two recent incidents – one in Zambia and the other in Namibia - crystallize a pattern of events that we have covered throughout 2007:

* In Zambia, the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting Services has banned Radio Lyambai in Mongu from broadcasting live call-in shows. According to a Ministry spokesperson, the station was under investigation for allegedly having failed to handle calls professionally, which resulted in the station "becoming a platform for confrontation, controversies and a channel of insults and misinformation."

The Ministry called on the station to disseminate information in a balanced manner and to behave ethically. Tabb Lubinda, the station manager, appealed to the Ministry for an open dialogue with the station. "We request to talk to you and exculpate ourselves before you take action," he said.

Henry Kabwe, chairperson of the Media Institute of Southern Africa (MISA)-Zambia, urged the Ministry to rescind the decision to ban live call-in programmes, calling the decision "authoritarian, an assault on media freedom and freedom of expression, and contrary to democratic norms."

"The effect of the ban is to prevent Radio Lyambai listeners from expressing their views on critical social, economic and developmental issues in Western Province. It is, therefore, an unforgivable attack on the Zambian Constitution's guarantee of freedom of expression," Kabwe said.

The absence of regulatory mechanisms gives Government a free hand to impose its will. MISA’s Kabwe said the action was illegal, and called on the Ministry to establish the proposed Independent Broadcasting Authority (IBA). "We believe that a properly constituted IBA would be well placed to regulate the broadcasting industry professionally, impartially and free from accusations of political influence. However, as long as the ministry remains the regulator, there will be suspicion of bias and heavy-handedness in the way decisions affecting the broadcasting sector are made," he said.

* In Namibia, the “nanny-state” was represented on earth by the Board of Directors of the Namibian Broadcasting Corporation (NBC) who expressed concern about the public's abuse of some of the national broadcaster's radio call-in shows. In a statement issued by them, "The board appealed to the Namibian public from all walks of life to exercise maximum restraint in the process of interacting on the radio programmes."

It called on political leaders to use "maximum influence over their supporters" as they exercise their democratic rights. "Democracy and freedom of expression is for all Namibians. It will be a sad day if Namibians use the electronic media intentionally to cast aspersions on the integrity of others," said a statement signed by NBC Director General Bob Kandetu on behalf of the Board. The Board directed the management to continue managing NBC programmes in such a way that they were accessible to all Namibians and not misused by callers who intend to deride the integrity of others.

"The NBC management must activate all systems necessary to see to it that abusive callers do not carry the day on the NBC radio channels," it said. Last year the Government and the NBC announced that call-in programmes would be moderated by setting specific topics of discussion every day. The Namibian branch of the Media Institute of Southern Africa (Misa) came out strongly against the decision to censor call-in programmes on national radio, saying it was unhealthy for a growing democracy, as the call-in programmes had enormous value in allowing ordinary Namibians to raise issues of concern that might not otherwise have come to public attention.

So what was a sore point for the Government? Some regular callers to the call-in programmes showed a lack of respect for former President Sam Nujoma. "Let it be noted that public officials deserve less - not more - protection from public commentary than ordinary citizens. They have sought the notoriety involved in serving the common weal through public office. And as such, they are the servants of the public, not its masters," Misa Namibia said. The media group said democracy and economic prosperity were not possible without public accountability of leaders, transparency in their transactions and vigorous public discussion of issues and choices. "This veiled attempt by the NBC management is therefore contemptuous and cannot be seen in any other light than the NBC heeding the call of its master," Misa Namibia said.

Radio call-in shows are a useful safety valve for opinions that do not find a place in other parts of what are often tightly controlled media. The absence of an independent regulatory framework in many countries means that Government can make up the rules as it goes along. And all too often, these are couched in terms of “threats to security” which in many cases can simply be translated as threats to the stability of Government. However, threats to national security from separatist or religious movements do exist. But call-in shows the world over usually operate within a set of ground rules and are readily able to know where the line can be drawn between pungently expressed opinion and abuse.

But even when media is tightly controlled, people find ways of expressing themselves. The role of SMS messaging as an alternative media in the Kenyan elections and their aftermath is worth noting. Throughout the election, persons unknown were sending out damaging allegations about candidates standing for election. After the elections, violence was often encouraged and inspired by the use of SMS messages.

However, we understand that despite considerable pressure having been brought to bear on the mobile operators to cut off SMS messaging, neither of the two operators (Celtel and Safaricom) acquiesced. The latter simply sent out a message saying that those sending messages should be aware that they must abide by the law. On this basis, SMS messaging looks like a tougher media than radio when under Government pressure. Even the Ethiopian Government, who are a law unto themselves in the context of the continent, were finally late last year forced to rescind their ban on SMS messaging.