26 July 2012

Zambia: Revive Vernacular Newspapers


I would like to bring to the fore the lack of vernacular newspapers in our country. My recent trip to Tanzania by road revealed an impressive array of vernacular newspapers.

I passed through five different towns that each had a unique daily Swahili newspaper available before noon.

This made me wonder why our country has always settled for second fiddle in these issues.

Indeed there is urgent need to take a fresh look at the role of vernacular newspapers in our country.

With a new popular Government in place which has promised to restore and to respect Press freedom, plurality of the print media should be encouraged.

Our metropolis has long been spoiled by a variety of newspapers while the more deserving rural folks are left ruing missed opportunities.

Despite an impressive adult literacy rate of more than 70 per cent, the lack of discernable vernacular media is an affront to our fledgling democracy.

Almost a decade ago, we tried as a couple albeit unsuccessfully to establish a community newspaper in Eastern Zambia. Called Kwacha Kum'mawa, a Chewa phrase meaning "light has come to the East" the idea was short-lived for myriad reasons.

There was also the Bemba version of Mutende servicing the Northern circuit which fizzled out with time.

We hope readers can learn from our mistakes and instead sharpen their minds for opening vernacular publications.

Firstly it was impracticable to get a loan to kick-start the process. The interest rates were quite scary. The second major obstacle was the distance to the printing press.

The local printer at St Anne's Cathedral in Chipata could not manage our newsprint requirements. These left us with the option of printing from Lusaka, 600 kilometres away or go the 100 kilometre trip to Lilongwe.

We ruled out the latter for its border tax hurdles. Even when we insisted, we had unenthusiastic readers, a low subscriber base, few advertisers and general lack of support across the spectrum. We ended up settling for a "now you see now you don't" magazine, whose motto was "the magazine that talks".

Zambia seems to have one of the highest lending rates in the world, which trend must be nipped in the bud if we are to encourage entrepreneurship.

Recently Vice-President Guy Scott, mentioned that Government has put in place measures to redress this sad trend.

This could spur entrepreneurs to invest in hitherto unchartered waters like vernacular printing.

We need as a country to revive the spirit of community led newspapers by upholding publications about and for rural areas.

Zambia Information Services - ZIS then mooted the idea of publishing vernacular newspapers, many years ago. Six publications, which left much to be desired in terms of content and circulation, were a darling of the rural dwellers.

Tsopano, Intanda, Imbila, Liseli, Lukanga

and Ngoma, were part of the publications that followed ZIS.Land Rovers with giant speakers announcing political meetings, film shows and important community information.

Forget about the massive propaganda by the then ruling United National Independence Party - UNIP, such newspapers provided a rare link with the Party and Its Government - PIG and the locals.

The Patriotic Front Government can take a leaf from that era and improve on the lapses that were inherent in those publications.

For instance the biggest criticisms that arose were that the publications were awfully out-dated.

The common trend was to read a translated cut and paste version of the national Press. Lifting stories from television, radio and national papers is not the best idea of feeding the vernacular Press.

Wasn't it ironic that one local paper named "Tsopano" or "New" was full of old and dusted articles? Bring into the mix distribution woes and you had a recipe for disaster.

To worsen matters, content was mostly centred on politicians, missing the delicate local blend.

Unfortunately this status quo continued during the Movement for Multi Party Democracy - MMD rule.

Few years ago, the six vernacular newspapers were re-launched under the same old guise of bridging the information gap between the urban elite and the information starved rural population.

It was evident that the new initiative would be boggled down by Government financial constraints.

Successful governments forget that the term vernacular in its etymology has the meaning of local and indigenous.

This type of journalism caters for the needs and interests of non metropolitan communities and plays a vital role in serving local needs, raising the prestige of the local language, capturing and motivating a select readership.

Opposition leader Elias Chipimo is of the view that limited alternative media is a bad sign for Zambia's fledgling democratic credentials.

The Government should use its muscle to set up provincial printing presses that can among others, reduce the cost of printing at that level.

This can easily accommodate the printing needs of Government machinery and cater for third parties like those running papers.

Government is in an ideal position to import printing equipment without the hassle of taxes. The importation cost can easily be recouped by providing services to the public at a cost.

This shared arrangement could reduce Government expenditure drastically. These are initiatives that would warrant Government borrowing.

Alternatively local business executives can be requested to pool their resources together and import at least one modern printing press per province.

Government can also link serious entrepreneurs to soft loans for the set up of vernacular newspapers.

Shouldn't Citizens Economic Empowerment Commission have a deliberate window on the advancement of local media?

Donors must also come in with a basket fund for the print media. More than 40 radio stations have been formed country-wide largely with donor support.

Aren't the donors worried that our country has no single provincial based newspaper, worth mentioning?

There is need for a basket fund for the advancement of print media in each of our ten provinces. We could also draw lessons from the demise of the Media Trust Fund-MTF, which was surprisingly heavily lopsided to electronic at the expense of the print media.

This miniature version of Government printers at provincial level would also aid our country's decentralisation plans.

The maintenance costs for this equipment can easily be subsidised by external factors. Despite lack of statistics, it is evident that various ministries at provincial level have bulk printing needs, that unfortunately are met by among others quack printers in Lusaka.

Community newspapers are distinguished by their demonstrable affinity to be fed by local articles and adverts. Above all it is the local readers who hold sway to allow the publication share a common service to neighbourhood commerce and industry.

By providing an enabling environment, Government would abdicate the responsibility of printing the papers from Lusaka and allow a consortium of locals do the needful.

This is not asking too much from a Government that ascribes to the tenets of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the inalienable right to freedom and expression of opinion.

The onus is on the new Patriotic Front Government to provide enabling environments that empower citizens keen to set up such vernacular newspapers.

As a tail ender, I would like to thank the readers of our column for continued constructive feedback. We need the feedback to strengthen this column. Please keep on sending those emails!

Godfrey Chitalu, 0965/0977 466284 goddychitty@gmail.com

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