It is not very often that journalists are themselves a new subject, and when this happens it is often negative. Newsmen and woman in Malawi have lately been in the news, owing to President Joyce Banda’s outlandish attack on the local news media. President Banda ceased an opportunity when representatives of a local media freedom watchdog, NAMISA lobbied the President to sign a media freedom pact known as The Declaration of Table Mountain.
The declaration was agreed in 2007 at 60th World Newspaper Congress and 14th Editors Forum Conference, held in Cape Town, South Africa. The declaration asks African governments to remove repressive laws and legislations that restrict press freedoms. Specifically the so-called “insult Laws” and “criminal defamation”. Chairperson NAMISA, Anthony Kasunda recently told a local newspaper that these laws promote a culture of self-censorship. Journalists vet themselves in fear of these laws. The consequence of self-censorship, he noticed, is that the public is denied crucial information.
Freedom of expression and free flow of information is crucial in democratic societies and of course people have a right to know. This is not just a journalistic freedom; it is for the general public. Joyce Banda’s outrage over the local media owes it to her own misguided views, or false pretence of what local media ought to be doing. She wants uncritical media that will part her on the back even when things are clearly wrong. She wants media that will “help her”.
Whatever this helps means, but this is not how media in democracy work and Malawi media knows it. Consequently, she has accused the media of disliking her. Apparently the President’s family has advised her stop reading the local press, as it is unhealthy for her. President Banda went further saying that she now understands the late President Bingu wa Mutharika’s dislike of the local media. Mutharika implemented some restrict media laws, which to her credit, Banda has since repealed. If President Banda thought this would silence the media she got it wrong. The president went to unprecedented level of accusing the media of “killing” Mutharika. Her accusations are not true, of course. Mutharika died of heart on his way to the hospital after collapsing in the comfort of presidential palace. There were no journalists there.
President Banda may have said all this thinking that the delegation will be apologetic, especially as they were there on a lobbying mission. If this was the thinking then she miscalculated the move again. Newspapers have since carried critical analysis of their experience and her refusal to sign the declaration; a stern reminder to the president that she promised to promote media freedoms when she descended to power thirteen months ago. Daily Times (editorial put it this way:
“The criticisms from the State House against professional investigative and analytical journalism that expose corruption, maladministration and social ills are not strange. Her [Joyce Banda’s] former predecessors travelled through that same route of criticising the media when it exposed shortfalls of their regimes. As a matter of fact, as watchdog of those in power, the media does not expect praises from the state house.” Daily Times, April 23, 2013; p4
And “exposing shortfalls” is what a good section of Malawi media, especially press, have been doing. In particular, weekend newspapers – perhaps because they have more time to investigate stories, are good at exposing malpractices with the government and public institutions. The deficit is that such exposé die by the time the next edition is out. Newspaper reports rarely, if at all, lead to any investigations by relevant authorities.
This is a worrying situation and the media fraternity should be equally concerned about it. It shows that those running public institutions have very little to no regard for what the media reports. Hence they cannot act on it. This undermines the great and commendable job that a good number of journalists do in the country, journalists that are often working under pressure due to poor infrastructure, stringent legislations, inadequate pay etc.
It would definitely be big leap-forward to have a government committed to protecting press freedom, not just in theory but in practice as well. Yet the key issue remains that excellent media exposés are not acted upon. This will not change even if Joyce Banda was to sign the Table Mountain pact now. Yes, this may help reduce self-censorship, which would certainly translate into more news stories in the public domain, stories that would not otherwise be there. But the role of journalism in democracy does not and should not end there.
Authorities must take media reports seriously. Media reports verified facts. This can only be achieved if the likes of Joyce Banda stop seeing the media as trouble markers but professionals working in the interest of public. Excellent journalism exposing corruption in high places is of no use if the government is unwilling to do anything about it. Joyce Banda should realise that her attack on the media is a fertile ground for corruption and impunity. President Banda should see a bigger picture and realise that her stance will not hurt the media. It will hurt the citizenry she swore to serve and protect. War on media is war on poor people. The poor always major victims of myopic, reckless and selfish policies.