In this interview, our journalist JOHN CHIRWA engages Platform for Investigative Journalism (PIJ) executive director Gregory Gondwe on how attacks on the media push back accountability efforts. Gondwe was recently detained for publishing leaks of how Attorney General Thabo Chakaka Nyirenda authorised payments to Zuneth Sattar’s business he himself had blacklisted. Excerpts:
Q: How do you assess press freedom during the Tonse Alliance regime?
A: In Malawi, we have become used to the idea that press freedom depends on who has political authority at the time. If I have to speak for myself as a media practitioner, I would not rank the Tonse Alliance regime highly because I just got arrested for doing journalistic work. What the State was even demanding from me is unheard of in the modern democratic dispensation because they wanted me to reveal my source. And it is clear that the Tonse Alliance administration has upped its surveillance gear.
Imagine, before my arrest, they had to eavesdrop on my mobile phone communication and realised I had just spoken to my younger sister and this is where they first went to harass her so that she could tell them who I am as if it was going to be hard to just give me a call and talk to me. So, I can declare without fear of reprisals that we don’t have press freedom. The State is spying on the media practitioners and holding above their heads the sword of Damocles.
Q:What role does investigative journalism play to keep such regimes in check?
A: When you look at the model of representative democracy, you come to appreciate that those that we have in various positions are working on behalf of the people.
Overtime, we have come to appreciate that those that we elect into these positions sometimes abuse this power with impunity. They will deviate from the well-drawn paths of ensuring that the public finance management system is followed to the letter. Just because they have the power that people bestowed upon them, they will repurpose the governance systems, including the police, investigative agencies such as the Anti-Corruption Bureau and even other establishments like the Attorney General and the Director of Public Prosecutions to do as they please, not in accordance with laws and public good.
This is now where the media comes in, it checks the three branches of the State to ensure that their primary mandate of serving the people is upheld. The moment those that are in these public positions know that they are in the wrong, when they decide to conduct themselves out of the ordinary, they will try all tricks in the book to hide their heinous acts. But using investigative journalism skills, we dismantle the stonewalling done to conceal the rot so that we expose the wrongdoing. In so doing, we take the position of the Fourth Estate to become the watchdog of the State.
Q: What signals does your arrest send about the administration?
A: It is discomforting to the media that the State can take this position even in the face of its continued sermons on press freedom. It is as clear as daylight that the State is angry that we are calling public office-holders to account for their actions through various investigative stories that we have been writing so far. The journalism we are doing at PIJ is public interest journalism that speaks truth to power. We are aware that as democratic media is pushed out through several factors, including corrupting the media practitioners, undemocratic media actors fill such void with elements that won’t stand for public good.
The corruption machinery that has taken up these spaces can only be fought off with a democratic media whose heartbeat is the watchdog journalism that we are pursuing. It is now such undemocratic media elements that are fighting us and hoping that we will cower and leave the stage so that it can flourish in the manner that it knows best. But we cannot sacrifice press freedom by not being bold and stand in the face of aggression or ploy to frighten us with arrests. The regime should be exposed for what it is. It preaches about press freedom during the day, but at night it fights tooth and nail by using State apparatus, like the police and in other instances, the law to remove press freedom.
Q: How does it threaten IJ?
A:Investigative journalism deals with issues that can land those that have power and wealth in prison or lose their status if the whole system is not corrupted like is our Malawi case at the moment. But where the systems are still functional and presided over by the representatives of the people who have high standing integrity, exposure of wrongdoing and calling the powers to account, means that the system will detect culprits and summarily deal with them. But where the system is all rotten, it becomes dangerous when all that are involved are trying to protect themselves.
The politicians will usually use the State apparatus like the police to victimise those doing Investigative Journalism and those with wealth will use their money to bribe or to even take lives of journalists as has happened in several countries across the world.
In the representative democracy, where the public is knowledgeable that the public office holders are in these positions on their behalf, they protect the work of investigative journalism by ensuring that rights of media practitioners are guarded. Journalists can only be safe if we continue to exercise vigilance and proactiveness whenever practitioners come under threat from the authorities. What is clear though, is that, the moment media practitioners will blink if for a second, the authorities will crack its whip in the manner it desires which in other ways will threaten the safety of journalists and journalism, because given the opportunity, this government would be arresting journalists arbitrarily.
Q: Why should journalists and the nation be worried?
A:Journalists and the people have to be worried because the leadership could be wolves in sheep, skin. We have to be worried because now the people who hired public servants are out on a war against the very people they put in these positions. If this scenario is not worrisome, then tell me what is.