Our reporter FATSANI GUNYA speaks to Misa-Malawi chairperson THOM KHANJE on various issues affecting the media as the fraternity celebrated World Press Freedom Day on May.
: How free is the media in Malawi?
: The media in Malawi is relatively free but we are still far from meeting acceptable standards of media freedom. Compared to pre-1994 years when Malawi was under autocratic rule, we have a far freer media that can criticise and hold the government accountable without fear of arrest or other abuse by the government or its agents. Malawi’s media can also be regarded as freer compared to most in neighbouring countries where journalists are persecuted, prosecuted or even killed for exposing wrongs in government and other powerful elements. However, what is generally lacking in Malawi is permanency of its media freedom. Right now, media freedom is dependent on the whims of an incumbent government. One government will come and provide some media freedom; another will come in and take away some of that freedom. That’s why Misa-Malawihas been calling for the repeal of anti-media laws in our statutes which some overzealous government can still use to suppress media freedom as well as freedom of expression for all citizens. These are what we call insult laws that make it criminal for a journalist or indeed any citizen to criticise the President. These laws have to be removed because they are not in line with our Constitution which guarantees freedom of the media and of expression.
: How much effect does political influence have on the media in Malawi?
: You can obviously not separate the media and politics. The media is primarily there to check on politicians while politicians want to hide most things from the media. So, while the media will always follow the politician, the politicians will also always try to find ways of influencing the media in their favour. This can happen through either direct or indirect ownership of media houses or through clandestine means such as bribes to journalists. Government is also the largest business for the media, so politicians can also use their control of government resources to manipulate the media through adverts and other economic factors. So politics will also influence the media and the extent will depend on how strong and empowered the media is professionally and economically.
: Is the context of political influence the only way to gauge media freedom in the country or we do have other factors that come into play?
: Of course, politics is one of them but business is also another factor. Just like politicians can use government resources to influence the media, the corporate world can also use advertising to control the media. The same is with NGO and even the international community. They all have the financial muscle with which they can force the media to advance their agenda. That is why it is important for the media to be economically strong so that they can resist undue financial pressures and remain independent and professional. They say money is power, so I wouldn’t dispute those who think business and economic factors have the largest influence on the media.
: What do you think should be done to bring the online media to heel in the face of concerns about unethical reporting?
: The online media is new in Malawi and it is being largely used by non-journalists who just venture into publishing without training, experience or any exposure to media ethics and codes of conduct. As a result, it is being heavily abused and has become an embarrassment to the media profession even though those writing are not even journalists. We, therefore, agree with efforts to regulate online media with the aim of holding those who publish false information accountable. The traditional media is accountable because the entities are registered, editors are known and can always be sued whenever they defame somebody. The same is not the case with online media. The regulations being proposed should aim at making sure that all online media entities are duly registered and traceable so that they should be called to account when they infringe on other people’s rights. What we should guard against, however, is for the government to use such regulations to suppress media freedom and freedom of expression. n
Full interview available at www.mwnation.com