As journalists the world over celebrated the World Press Freedom Day on Tuesday, many observers—from politicians and diplomats to civil society activists and ordinary Malawians—were gushing in their praise of the job the Malawi media has done to hold the authorities accountable despite limited political space.
One Malawian, however, remains unconvinced about how the media has performed and he told radio host a piece of his mind. He pointed out, during a phone-in programme on World Press Freedom Day on some radio station, that the media sometimes takes consumers of news for granted by selling them short.
He said he had been left aghast sometimes by the media’s arbitrary choice of analysts where anyone—nurse, fisherman, vendors—would qualify as a political analyst so long as they bash government. It hurt, but maybe it was a fair point.
At least it was a departure from the platitudes from diplomats, CSOs and the self-deprecating congratulations journalists gave themselves for a job well-done.
No less praiseworthy of the media were President Peter Mutharika and Minister of Information, Communication Technology and Civic Education Patricia Kaliati who, in separate statements, commended the media and asked it to continue “serving Malawi with a sense of patriotism, high integrity and the dedication of national duty.”
One thing I expected to hear from either was government’s commitment to passing the Access to Information (ATI) Bill in its unadulterated form as an important aspect of press freedom as well as a tool of submitting itself to scrutiny. But it did not warrant a sentence in either statement.
All Kaliati said was the same (hypocritical) assurance we have heard before: “that no journalist will be arrested or stopped from professionally doing his or her job during this administration”. What more would you ask of a government, especially when journalists have been arrested in the past for just doing their job.
Now, Reporters Without Borders released its annual Press Freedom Index which names and shames countries based on how free journalists can practice their trade on the same Tuesday.
Eritrea is comfortably ensconced in the naughty corner after anchoring the 180-country index for the second year running, just as Finland remains the best country for anyone to practice journalism in.
Malawi, though creditably ranked 66 in 2016 has slipped up by seven points over its 2015 ranking, which should not be alarming but cause of concern all the same. Has Kaliati or the President asked themselves what has gone wrong in the past 12 months that has made the country to slip up on the index? No journalist may have been arrested, true, but several have had their professional execution of journalism compromised by unwritten policy the government is pursuing.
I will jog their mind with only a few. Upon his return from the United Nations General Assembly last year, Mutharika held a press conference at Kamuzu Palace where former presidential press secretary Gerald Viola’s attempt to pick and choose questioners were thwarted when Tereza Ndanga grabbed the microphone and posed some uncomfortable questions to the President. Ndanga and Zodiak Broadcasting Station (ZBS), her employers, were to pay dearly for such mischief.
At another Mutharika press conference a few months later, ZBS was conveniently forgotten from being invited. The enterprising scribes from ZBS pitched up at the Palace all the same, but they were promptly turned away. If this is not known as stopping someone from professionally doing their job, then I don’t know what it is.
Need I remind her about the situation at State-owned but public-funded Malawi Broadcasting Corporation (MBC) where journalists fail to professionally discharge their duties for fear of reprisals. Some have tried, but they have paid dearly with their jobs.
That and more, Madame Kaliati, are just some of the challenges that impede the full enjoyment of press freedom and we want the government to do something about it. n