On Friday, Malawi joins the world in commemorating Press Freedom Day. Over the years, the media has faced many challenges, including bad laws that restrict media freedom, as well as threats to journalist.JAMES CHAVULA spoke to media lawyer Mandala Mambulasa, on his assessment of the media landscape in Malawi.
Q: Looking back, how do you remember Bingu wa Mutharika’s relations with the media and the quest for press freedom?
It appeared to me that initially, Mutharika’s relationship with the media was cordial, especially during his first term of office. He invited the media to State House at least twice during his presidency as far as I can recall. Journalists were free to ask him virtually any question on any issue that mattered to us, the citizens. He also promised further training and capacity building for the media industry in Malawi. However, he died without having fulfilled that pledge, as far as I know.
However, later on, in his second term of office, the late president changed his ways and approach towards the media. He started calling them names and threatened to shut down some print and electronic media.
The late Mutharika seemed not to care anymore about press or media freedom. He did nothing about the Access to Information Bill, in spite of numerous appeals being made to him personally and his government to ensure its passage into law. His government introduced VAT on newsprint which pushed the price for newspapers in the country. He refused to repeal Section 46 of the Penal Code (Amendment) Act insisting that it was a good law. He never disassociated himself from utterances made by party officials that civil servants should not buy or read Nation newspapers. In short, he threatened to use archaic laws to protect himself and his office with a view to stifling any meaningful debate and discussion about his leadership style and the direction and future of the country. He infringed media freedom in unimaginable ways.
Q: What is there to rejoice about President Joyce Banda’s approach to media freedom?
There are some positive things to rejoice about President Banda’s approach to media freedom. Until a few months ago, there was some slight opening up of the State media to opposition figures and critical voices from the academia and elsewhere. This seems to have totally died down now and we are almost back to square one. Her government removed VAT on newsprint which led to slight reduction in prices of newspapers. Her government repealed Section 46 of the Penal Code (Amendment) Act. There have been remarkable consultative meetings on Access to Information Bill and accompanying policy within government. President Banda has also exercised some restraint. Thus far, it is only one journalist who has been arrested for writing a story which many believe was not true. We have also seen many media houses being granted TV and radio licences by Malawi Communications Regulatory Authority (Macra) during her reign.
Q: What more does the President and her government need to improve/eradicate to create a better world for media practitioners?
The President should sign the Table Mountain Declaration [she has since refused to sign it]. The President and her government should expedite final consultative meetings on Access to Information Bill and Policy and ensure that the Bill is enacted into legislation and the Policy is adopted as a matter of urgency. The President and her government should also repeal some sections in a number of laws which her predecessor threatened to use against the citizenry such as those relating to ‘insulting the person of the President’ under the Protected Flag, Emblems and Names Act, publishing false news under the Penal Code to name but a few. These laws have no place in a modern democracy such as ours. In fact, in United Kingdom where we inherited them from, they have moved on and repealed all such laws.
The President should ensure that her government is putting in place measures and taking steps such as gathering and classifying information in preparation for the passage of the Access to Information Bill. The review of the Communications Act 1998 should also be expedited to ensure a level-playing field on the media landscape as the country goes to the polls next year. The President should also reiterate her call to State media to open up to opposition figures and critical voices from the academia and elsewhere so that we have a robust debate on issues affecting our country.
Q: What do JB outbursts mean to the quest for press freedom and unrestricted access to information considering that they coincide with a lobby for her commitment towards the Table Mountain Declaration on safeguarding freedom of the press?
The President is sending mixed signals on press freedom generally. On one hand, she has done relatively well in supporting the cause of media freedom in the past one year. Through her action she has been supportive of press/media freedom as I have highlighted above. However, her recent utterances were rather unfortunate in my view and raised questions in the minds of so many. I think there is room for improvement. As I said, the President should reconsider her position on that issue. Many in the country and beyond are looking up to her to see the kind of difference that a female President can make. Media freedom is one easy gain/win that she can make an impact on. I am sure that the President will seriously consider signing the Table Mountain Declaration. If she did, Malawi would be the third if not fourth country to do so on the entire continent and we would be sending the right signals out there. However, I do not agree with you that we can have ‘unrestricted’ access to information. Under our Constitution access to information is not an absolute right. Consequently, access to information may in appropriate circumstances be restricted, provided the restriction should comply with Section 45(1) of the Constitution.
Q: What do you make of government’s strides towards enacting the Access to Information Bill which has been gathering dust for 10 years?
It is a welcome development. It would be one of the greatest gifts the citizens of this country would remember the Banda administration for. Malawi would join a handful of countries with such a piece of legislation on the continent and beyond.