I, Joyce Hilda Mtila Banda, do solemnly declare that all journalists in Malawi are murderers! Well, she may not have used those exact words, but she could as well have.
Remember, whatever a President says from the podium is taken pretty seriously. In fact, it is policy by default.
What she said—that local journalists are responsible for her predecessor Bingu wa Mutharika’s death and that she is worried senseless that they may do unto her what they did unto the late leader—was particularly poignant given the media freedom context in which she made the divisive and unpresidential statement.
The tantrums came just after journalists, led by Media Institute of Southern Africa regional chairperson Anthony Kasunda, had introduced to her the Table Mountain Declaration, ahead of the upcoming May 3 World Press Freedom Day celebrations.
This declaration is an important document that journalists treasure as it calls for the repeal of draconian pieces of legislation that hinder their professional practice.
Granted, Mrs. Banda is entitled to a lot of things, including immunity from prosecution, free housing; free food; I am told even free clothing and, of course, her opinion.
But, as recently vanquished US Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney would say, she is not entitled to her own facts.
Unless the President wants to say that her Commission of Inquiry into Mutharika’s death is a bed of lies, the report made it clear that he died of a heart attack inside the then New State House (now Kamuzu Palace) where there was no journalist in sight.
If there were anything resembling journalistic artistry within the palace, it could be the surveillance cameras installed there for security and not to take pictures for publication or any undercover reporting operation that could have sent the old man into fits.
But, being President, Mrs. Banda may know more than we do. So, do tell us Madam President, how did journalists kill Mutharika?
Did they fly into that fortress in the capital and wrench his heart out? Did they parachute into Mutharika’s office like the US Navy Seals that took out terrorist Osama bin Laden and shot the fallen DPP leader?
Isn’t it interesting how paranoia engulfs politicians once they are at the centre of power!
They start believing that anyone who does not agree with them; refuses to wear their party colours and do not lick their expensive boots —in their newly acquired wisdom and intelligence—is out to get them.
When Mrs. Banda was out in the cold, hounded by DPP zealots, she sought protection from journalists and we instinctively gave it to her because that is the nature of our job: to give the weak and defenceless some refuge. And she loved us back then, speaking out against media intimidation and bad press laws.
But when she got in the driving seat, she expected journalists to continue coddling her and was shocked by the ruthless attacks against her leadership style. Again, that is the nature of our job: to be the public’s eyes, ears, noses and hands—holding excessive power in check.
It is our business to watch every move she makes; comb through and analyse any statement she utters. It was a new experience which she has failed to adjust to. Mrs. Banda chalked all that down to jealousy—that some journalists were suddenly envious of her ascendancy to the presidency. My foot!
She even swallowed lies from some of her advisers that some journalists were bitter that the President had not employed them hence the vicious attacks. Gosh!
Instead of taking a hard long look at the mirror and reflect on what went wrong for a once supportive media to sour on her, she accepted the most simplistic explanation and clung to it.
Mrs. Banda has refused to pause and look at the possibility that she might be taking a wrong turn and that the critics she believes hate her actually want her to succeed hence their pointing out her bad political and economic decisions.
Someone from her team also neglected to inform her that she is no longer the persecuted and vulnerable vice-president who the media had to protect; that because she now holds the enormous power that comes with being President, there are bound to be victims of her supremacy who the media has to speak out for.
As an editor, I am sad to hear that someone has decided not to read newspapers.
But I take pride in the reason she has given—that we are so aggressive she fears what we might keep on exposing about her I hope. We are doing a damn good job!
Whether she likes it or not, President Banda cannot run away from newspapers given their coveted place in a democracy.
She may wish to look up to Thomas Jefferson, the third US president, who stated in one of the most celebrated quotes in media history: “Were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate for a moment to prefer the latter.”
John F Kennedy, the 35th US president, reinforces this criticality of the broader mainstream media in this quote: “There is a terrific disadvantage in not having the abrasive quality of the press applied to you daily. Even though we never like it, and even though we wish they didn’t write it, and even though we disapprove [of it], there isn’t any doubt that we could not do the job at all in a free society without a very, very active press.”
These are great statesmen, Mrs. Banda. You could use their wise words for your own good. Wakutsina khutu ndi mnasi. Kauzganga ndi fwiti cha, fwiti ni tilinganenge.