VISITING American Professor Al Cross yesterday said Zambian journalists should never give in to government's demands for a statutory regulation of the media.

Addressing Media Liaison Committee (MLC) members and journalists at ZAMCOM training centre, Prof. Cross who is director of the institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues at the University of Kentucky, advised Zambian journalists to establish a voluntary media council that could not impose any penalty other than embarrassment.

He said voluntary media council was the best for Zambian journalists.

"The media in Zambia should not give to government's demand for statutory regulation. I have always been a supporter of voluntary media councils that cannot impose any penalty other than embarrassment because I think they help journalists do better jobs, head off lawsuits and help the public understand how journalists go about their work," he said.

Prof. Cross urged Zambian journalists to sensitise the people that the media would serve them better if they had access to government records.

He said the public needed to realize that a Freedom of Information Act was not just for journalists, but also for the entire public.

"The arguments for a Freedom of Information Act in Zambia are not just about information. They are also about the interests of the nation as a whole, because repressive regimes can have difficulty attracting tourists, donors and investment," he said.

Prof. Cross said criticism of public officials' policies and actions did not constitute personal insults.

"I have not had an opportunity to conduct a comprehensive analysis of the coverage of the Zambian government by the non-state-owned newspapers, but its typical for private news media to accentuate the negative when they are competing for circulation and advertising against subsidized state-owned media that accentuate the positive. Newspapers are imperfect; that's one reason they are called the first draft of history," Prof. Cross said. "But I have a couple of pieces of news for the minister of information:

Criticism of public officials' policies and actions do not constitute personal insults, and freedom of the press includes the freedom to be irresponsible."

He saluted the media in Zambia, which had rightly been watchdog of the government, protecting the public interest.

Prof. Cross said the Zambian media needed the freedom and tools to do the job they were supposed to do by holding the officials, ministries and institutions accountable for thei performance and keeping the people informed.

"Yes, sometimes watchdogs bark when nothing threatens, and that can be irritating, especially to the people whom are being barked at. But a little extraneous barking is a small price to pay for having a watchdog. And a watchdog on a short leash can't do a very good job, so it's more inclined to bark," he said.

Prof. Cross said journalists should have the freedom to be biased, unfair and reckless, but that they should also be subjected to the civil law of libel.

"And criticism of officials' actions and policies isn't libel, either - and they should also hold themselves accountable, through their employers and media councils like the one being proposed by the journalists in Zambia," he said.

Prof. Cross called for a voluntary media council that could not impose any penalty other than embarrassment.

He said voluntary media council was the best for Zambian journalists.

Prof. Cross said he was horrified with calls for statutory regulation of the media in Zambia because in a democracy and democratic republic like Zambia, the people were supposed to the sovereign and the news media were an extension of the people, helping the participate in democracy.

"A Freedom of Information Act would demonstrate that the government is transparent and respectful of citizens' rights. One great value of a Freedom of Information Act is that it gives access to records, which are usually much better documentation of facts than statements by individuals, which are often laced with opinion, or even primarily or totally opinion," he said. "Free and open
examination of public records is in the public interest and the exceptions…shall be strictly construed, even though such examination may cause inconvenience or embarrassment to
public officials or others."

Prof. Cross said the greatest underlying resistance to the release of public records arose from the personal feelings of the people who had in possession the documents and not the concerns about procedures and policy.

He said too often, public officials thought of their offices and private possessions, forgetting that they held the offices in trust for the public.

"And they hold those records in trust for us. Government records are a treasure chest of information and knowledge, waiting to be opened, and we don't really know what we will find when the lock is broken," he said.