As the media fraternity commemorated this year’s World Press Freedom Day (WPFD) which falls on May 3, ALBERT SHARRA discusses issues of media freedom in Malawi with Media Institute of Southern Africa (Misa)-Malawi Chapter chairperson Thom Khanje.
Malawi is one of the countries that continue to perform poorly on media freedom, Currently ranked 66 on the Reporters Without Borders Index. What factors do you think are contributing to this?
Government’s reluctance to repeal laws that threaten media freedom, enact the Access to Information [ATI] Bill and review the Communications Act to free Malawi Broadcasting Corporation [MBC] from political interference are some of the contributing factors. We have also recently witnessed breaches to citizens’ right to freedom of expression through arrests of ordinary citizens on charges of insulting the President. Some people have also been arrested for sending each other WhatsApp messages deemed treasonous by the government. All these actions smack of a government that is intolerant to freedom of expression and of the media.
Government is yet to sign the Table Mountain Declaration. The ATI Bill continues to drag. Do you have hope that such legislation will see the light of day?
The ATI Bill will one day see the light of the day because it is a constitutional provision that was put in place by the people through Parliament as part of Malawi’s transition to multiparty democracy way back in 1995. Malawians, through widespread consultations that were undertaken in the drafting of the Constitution, decided that Malawi should have the ATI legislation. The same is the case with the insult laws that continue to exist in our statutes even though they are contrary to the Constitution. So, while politicians seem reluctant to give people their constitutional right, I believe that the will of the people always prevails, no matter how long politicians will try to deny the people what they want.
How important are these laws?
Enactment of the ATI, repealing of insult laws and freeing of MBC from political interference are important as they could strengthen Malawi’s democracy and strengthen people’s ability to hold leaders accountable. Malawi can only develop socially and economically if citizens are empowered to the fullest and politicians are always answerable to people. Reduced donor support to Malawi also means reduced influence of donors in the affairs of the country. The days when our government would be forced to do the right things whenever donors speak are slowly coming to an end. This is, therefore, the right time for Malawians to be empowered fully as there would soon be no-one to put pressure on the government on their behalf when things are going wrong. No instruments have more power to strengthen citizens than Access to Information and freedom of expression.
What should happen for the Malawi media record to improve?
President Peter Mutharika should live up to his obligation of upholding, defending and promoting the Constitution as he swore during his inauguration ceremony in 2014. He also made similar commitments through the Democratic Progressive Party [DPP] manifesto. Upholding the Constitution means giving people their full constitutional rights. His government’s continued reluctance to enact the ATI Bill, repeal insult laws and free MBC from political interference means Malawians are being denied their constitutional rights. And the arrests of ordinary citizens for simply expressing themselves are a shame and an insult to our hard fought democracy and should not be allowed in democratic Malawi. Malawi will continue fairing badly on the media freedom index as long as threats to media freedom and freedom of expression continue to exist in Malawi.
It has been two years since you were elected Misa-Malawi chair, how would you describe the journey so far?
We have spent the last two years continuing with the campaign for ATI Bill as well as strengthening Misa-Malawi to become self-reliant financially following the complete drying up of funding from our regional head office in Namibia. I am happy to state that we are still able to pay salaries for our secretariat, pay rentals and run our operations smoothly even without support from the regional office. We have also completed the development of our five-year strategic plan, which will be our guiding plan as we strive to be more responsive to our member’s needs and generate resources on our own. One of the key projects in the strategic plan is the setting up of our own School of Journalism to offer undergraduate and post graduate courses to continue educating students during evenings and weekends. This is a venture that will enable us to not only earn income, but also build skills and capacity in the media.
This weekend the media will be commemorating the WPFD. What is your message to the media fraternity and perhaps government?
Malawians should continue to jealously guard freedom of the media and freedom of expression as they are key to our democracy. There can be no true democracy without the people’s right to speak out. To the media, let us remain vigilant and professional as our society depends on us to speak on their behalf and inform them on the ills happening in the country.
How would you describe the relationship between the media and government in the 21 months of DPP regime as compared to previous regimes?
Although there has only been one journalist being arrested in the course of his job, which makes it the current government better compared to the first two years of any government in Malawi, the DPP regime does not seem to be much different to the previous regimes in as far as their commitment to media freedom is concerned as they continue to show resistance to enact a proper and acceptable access to information law, repeal insult laws and free MBC from political interference.
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