It has been reported that President Joyce Banda has demurred to sign the protocol concerning the right of the media to insult a president. Perhaps by the time this commentary is published, she will have signed as a result of pressure from diplomatic circles.
Yet, I hesitate to join the league of those who are trying to rush her into signing a protocol that is semi-suicidal. How many of us would be indifferent or jolly happy to be called all sorts of abusive names. In other words, who welcomes an insult directed against them?
If statuses protecting monarchs and presidents are being used as an excuse for curbing the press and other media to express independent views on public affairs then I am totally in agreement with those who want this law (insulting the Head of State) to be so defined as to limit its coverage, but not its total repeal.
Why not? Jesus said those things you wish other people to do to you; you too do the same to them. Another sage said the same in different words: “Do not do to others, what you would not wish others to do to you.”
Any kind of freedoms appertaining to democracy have to be utilised within bounds. Unlimited freedom degenerates to licence to do evil. With the resumption of multiparty democracy in Malawi arrived all types of freedoms, some people interpreted them in peculiar manners.
Among them, students who disregarded school rules, broke school windows, assaulted their teachers smoke hemp and soaked themselves in alcohol. Many people spoke against this extended interpretation of freedom in interpretation that ignored the necessity of discipline.
What the public, the media and the police should be disabused of are the bounds which the media should not cross in exercising their rights. It should not be wrong to say “The president has said or done something silly or stupid.” But it would not be permissible to say the president is stupid, dull-witted; it would not be a crime to say the president has done something wrong in signing the law condoning same sex marriages, but it would not be acceptable to publish a cartoon showing the president copulating with a member of his or her sex; these would amount to insults.
Our friends in the developed world who assist us financially should concede to us the right to differ with them in some matters of moral or political morality. By tradition, we believe in respect for those in authority and those older than we are. We believe a child should enjoy freedom within the family, but not call his or her parents abusive names; someone who is a chief is accorded respect by virtue of being a chief, and we usually prefer to abuse his advisers than himself when he has done something wrong.
Most professional bodies have documents containing codes of conduct to be observed by members. This is what members of media bodies in southern Africa should have. Instead of unduly provoking those in authority, the professional body should give guidance on self-restraint in the exercise of their rights.
Some people will regard these views as reactionary. But where there is no restraint in expressions, some offended people forget what the law says. In the Republic of Abanturika’s parliament, one of the ministers took the liberty of saying something about a female member of parliament with total regard to her feelings. He was making use of his freedom of expression in parliament. But for the lady, he had gone too far. She lunged towards him like a leopard clawed and hit him left and right.
Since nowadays murderers, though sentenced to death, are never hanged, mobs of outraged people lynch suspected murderers instead of taking them to the police.
If someone thinks he will be safe once the law against insulting presidents is repealed, one day he might wake up facing danger. Having said all sorts of foul language, the president might react philosophically. But his votaries might act differently. Without the president authority or knowledge, they might go and attack the offender.
Media representatives and parliamentary committees should sit down and reason together. Freedom of the press is an integral part of all that we call democracy. This does not mean we should do or say anything, even that which exposes someone or something to ridicule and hatred.
Everyone who reads this should ask whether he or she would not mind someone calling him or her a rascal, thief, womaniser, prostitute or some other contumacious epithet. Be honest. Do not advocate liberties against others which you would not tolerate when directed against you.
I must repeat, I advocate narrowing the range of acts or words to be regarded as insulting a president. I am not advocating the status quo.