- Category: Back Bencher
- Published Date
- Written by Back bencher
It is perhaps the only occasion when, under the umbrella of the local chapter of Media Institute of Southern Africa (Misa), journalists come together to celebrate press freedom.
We also get to know each other and, with the help of various companies and organisations, Namisa gives out awards to outstanding journalists, thereby encouraging us to bring out the best in us.
But come to think of it, isnâ€™t free press for us all as citizens? Why are journalists celebrating alone?
Our Constitution provides in the Bill of Rights the right to free press. Media practitioners have their specific interest in free press catered for in Section 36. But the section as well as Section 37 also cater for the public interest to access information, particularly held on its behalf by those in government.
Simply put, for democracy to function properly, the public ought to have adequate information with which to make informed choices.
An attribute which distinguishes free press from the regulated press of the one party era is the â€œwatch dogâ€ role. Under the one-party system, the press was not only government-regulated but it also largely â€œbelongedâ€ to government and was used as a tool to rally the people behind â€œtheir beloved Kamuzu, the party [MCP] and government.â€
Free press is characterised by the multiplicity of media houses and media content. It also has to be credible enough to thrive on sales of copies and space for adverts.
For the politicians who sarcastically ask which constituencies critical newspapers represent, I would humbly submit that for newspapers, elections do not happen once in five years as is the case for MPs. Rather, they happen daily by the reading public who vote with their money.
Again, while the hackneyed claim that the duty of the media is to â€œinform, educate and entertainâ€ is as true today as it was under the one-party government, it is only free press which has shown the propensity to interrogate official policy and expose skeletons in the cupboard of some public officers.
It is because of free press that the public now know that Ministers Dick Matenje, Aaron Gadama and Twaibu Sangala and MP David Chiwanga were bludgeoned to death by agents of the State as opposed to getting killed in a car crash as they were fleeing into Mozambique as reported by government way back in 1983.
Free press has also led to the dismissal and arrest of a Cabinet minister who used State funds for personal gains. Government and non-governmental institutions have also acted on media exposes on human rights violation and corruption.
Free press has also accorded our democracy a medium for public debate on issues of national significance. I must confess the electronic media is better positioned than print media for interactive content. If MBC-TV were left to operate professionally, it could be the greatest catalyst for change in Malawi.
Unfortunately, MBC-TV is as much about Moses Kunkuyu today as it was about Patricia Kaliati yesterday. In a day, you hear news about Kunkuyu attending a church service or receiving an award at the expense of the public who have thoughts and questions on the economic, political, health and social issues.
Which brings me to the question: is there free press in Malawi? Madam Joyce Banda has pledged good governance which inherently presupposes tolerance of dissenting views and free press. Time will tell.
Bingu wa Mutharika and Bakili Muluzi promised the same and ended up persecuting us while, at the same time, over-regulating State-run media. If free press is about biting the lower lip and doing the right thing at your own peril, then there is no doubt we have it in abundance. Under Kamuzu, telling any storyâ€”even if trueâ€”that did not portray a positive image of government was a ticket to detention without trial.
But if free press is a tool for providing the public with diverse information with which to make informed choices, then ours is a flag flying at half mast. State-run MBC, which has the highest rural-audience reach, is yet to portray, for the good of the electorate, the diversity that defines multiparty political dispensation.
Then there is the Access to Information Bill. The original draft was submitted in the 1990s but government has left it on shelf to gather dust. Instead, it has passed an amendment to Section 46 of the Penal Code, giving a minister power to prohibit a publication virtually arbitrarily.
Yet for there to be transparency and accountabilityâ€”tenets of good governanceâ€”the public, including media practitioners, ought to access public information. Letâ€™s talk about genuine free press when the majority of the people can access diverse information with which to make informed choices.