Honourable Folks, way back in 1999, I was among the Sadc journalists who had a stormy session with the region’s Heads of State and government on whether a smart partnership is possible at all between those in government and the media, especially the so-called independent or private media.
The meeting, held at Victoria Falls in Zimbabwe, was also attended by president Jerry Rawlings of Ghana, president Yoweri Museveni of Uganda and prime minister Mahathir Mohamad of Malaysia.
The politicians approached the debate, which was part of a quest for smart partnership that could create a win-win scenario for various stakeholders in the new multiparty dispensation engulfing the region, from the assumption that free press thrives on the commercial imperative of profit-making.
Isn’t it a fact that journalists, well-intending though they might be to the causes of nation-building and economic development, will as employees, serve the business and even political interests of their employers at the expense of the public interest?
Can journalists bite the finger that feeds them?
The media, on the other hand, tried to disabuse the political leaders of this holier-than-thou concern. Our argument was that deregulated dissemination of information—the business of free press—is the heartbeat of democracy.
It provides the citizenry with information with which to make informed choices—including at the ballot—and is also key to participatory democracy.
While there’s no denying that media owners may have vested interests—some of which may be sinister and counter-productive to the interests of nation-building, economic development and improved living standards of the people—journalistic ethics, laws of the land and editorial policies define the parameters under which free press can operate.
More importantly, the same profit interest which politicians see as a weakness is indeed the strength of free press. Since newspapers must be wilfully bought by the public and wilfully advertised in by organisations that see the reading public of those newspapers as their market to thrive, they risk closure if they don’t meet the information needs of the critical reading public.
Over the years, we have witnessed a scenario in which over 30 publications that hit the Malawi market at the dawn of the first multiparty government in 1994 have been reduced to nothing much more than two dailies and four weeklies
Not even government-funded newspapers have thrived! Of course, in the past, we used to see one or two publications resurfacing only during election times for propaganda purposes. Hope we shall see them again as the 2014 polls draw nearer.
What applies to commercial print media is equally true of commercial electronic media. Only those commercial broadcasters that have won the hearts of the public and the advertisers by trying to be balanced, non-partisan and with a wider reach are blooming. The rest are struggling or folding one by one.
I’ve brought this debate forward because, 13 years after the Victoria Falls debate, President Joyce Banda sees me and my colleagues as thumb-sucking idiots who can be hired to write newspaper article based on a family feud of 40 years, really?
The problem between the media and those occupying elected office is that the latter cherish positive news on the old belief that such news help rally the people’s support for their cause. In the reign of Kamuzu, the role of the media was “to rally the people behind their beloved Ngwazi, the party [MCP] and the government.”
All the presidents who have come after Kamuzu have made similar demands on the media. On MBC, the State-run broadcaster, they have even surpassed the Ngwazi—at least during the transition in the early 1990s—in messing up its editorial content.
But do the people want the media that praise elected leaders? If that were the case, several regulated government-owned publications under UDF and DPP should have grown into major dailies by now. Instead, they are dead and buried. Several party-funded publications followed the same line.
If politicians were doing commendable work at all times, we should have graduated from this abject poverty by now, almost 50 years since attaining our independence. Instead, it’s those in government getting richer by the day when the rest of us are getting poorer.
Whoever vies for an elected office, simply must brace for critical press. Why? Doing good is exactly why they are elected in the first place. Journalists work on the assumption that good work can be made better. There’s always room for improvement.