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THE BALANCING ACT: Prime TV, Government battle unpacked

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The State has responded to the High Court application by Prime TV saying it has not violated the Constitution by ceasing cooperation with the television station for its refusal to air free adverts relating to COVID-19 as alleged by the TV station.

Government says the relationship between itself and Prime TV is purely of a commercial nature and each party has the right to terminate that arrangement if they were not satisfied with it.

The State has since urged the Lusaka High Court not to grant the conservatory order sought by Prime Television as it would injure public interest, which requires all media houses to cooperate in the fight against COVID-19.

In this matter, Prime Television limited had petitioned the Lusaka High Court over government’s decision, together with its agents, to cease all cooperation with the television station.

It is seeking an order that Topstar and MultiChoice could not remove it from the platforms they manage at the direction of government.

Prime TV is also sought, among other reliefs an order quashing the decision of the Minister of Information and Broadcasting Services Dora Siliya to cease all cooperation with it and compensate for loss of income and business resulting from the statement of Topstar.

Prime TV said the decision by TopStar to cease business operation with it citing the statement by Siliya hindered its ability to receive information and disseminate information to the general public.

But the State in its opposition to summons for application for a conservatory order said the position taken by Prime Television “in these difficult times throughout the globe defeats public interest.

The State charged that Prime TV was still at liberty to receive and disseminate information as it still remained validly licensed pursuant to the Independent Broadcasting Authority Act No.17 of 2002 and the TV station was still currently broadcasting through Multichoice platform.

Government explained that it only indicated that it could not have any further dealings with Prim TV. It said Prime TV’s rights to receive and impart information had not been affected at all by the State merely
ceasing collaboration with it.

The State further argued that the High Court has no jurisdiction to grant conservatory orders against the State. And TopStar Communications company has asked the High Court to refer the matter to arbitration.

It stated that the application for conservatory order should be dismissed for lack of merit because granting the order would injure public interest in a scenario where all media houses refuse to air or publish sensitisation messages in the fight against coronavirus.

Meanwhile, the government’s key head of argument is that it did so in the interest of the public safety, saying should Prime TV be granted a conservatory order and continue to operate, it would set a bad precedence where all other media houses would refuse to air coronavirus messages.

Apparently, in cancelling Prime TV’s operating the Independent Broadcasting Authority indicated by the television station could appeal against the revoking of its licence to the Minister of Information and
Broadcasting Services.

In that instance, the matter becomes trick for the station in that the minister it is supposed to appeal to, is also an ‘active’ interested party in the issue. It would then be viewed as a case of appealing to the government, against the government, and some would be tempted to think that the television station won’t get a fair hearing.

On another note, looking at the station’s right to appeal, for some, it would have been better had there been an independent and neutral body to appeal to.

For instance, in neighbouring Zimbabwe, there is what is called the Voluntary Media Council of Zimbabwe, this body is independent and it looks into all media related complaints. A person who is not happy about a story can approach it to seek redress.

Even when the government is not happy with the conduct of a media house, it can register its compliant with the council and have the media house tried in a tribunal court.

On the same sense, the government’s point that it wouldn’t want the TV to set a bad example by ejecting airing messages, is also valid, however, some may think that while both parties have valid points of arguments, the revoking of the license is too harsh.

This school of thought maintains that by closing the TV, it would defeat the citizens’ constitutional rights of freedom of expression, freedom of association and the right to access to information.

The thought here becomes, while the TV could be punished, the punishment shouldn’t be too harsh. The government should therefore balance between the need to punish and discourage bad precedence and the need to promote the citizens’ right to access to information.

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Start: 2019-07-01 End: 2019-07-31