On his return from New York where he attended the 71st Session of the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA), President Peter Mutharika held a press conference which raffled a few feathers in the media fraternity especially the Media Institute for Southern Africa (Misa) Malawi Chapter. Our Reporter FATSANI GUNYA talks to its executive director, Aubrey Chikungwa to find out why they are unhappy with the manner in which the press conference was conducted. Excerpts:
Why was your body not amused with APM’s press conference?
The recent press briefing was a ‘press rally’ not a press conference. In its basic form, a press conference is a meeting structured to provide information to the media. A press conference can also be considered as an interview given to journalists by a prominent person in order to make an announcement or answer questions. From this basis, a press conference called by a State president is where a president invites journalists to make an announcement and respond to questions. Since Woodrow Wilson held the first presidential press conference in 1913, these meetings have gained popularity as an important platform of engagement between the presidency and the media.
As Misa we regard such conferences necessary spaces of engagement between the presidency and the public. People have an opportunity to have a fairly accurate report of what the president is trying to do as well as make informed judgments about their chief executives. Presidents have a chance to explain intricate policies and market themselves and their policies and development plans. The media or journalists act as surrogates for the public in this equation.
In your assessment, would you back the media to be professional in the way they have engaged the presidency at such platforms since his ascension to power, and particularly on this recent one?
The answer is yes. But it is important to appreciate where we are coming from. Our presidential press conferences have over the years been organized as ‘press rallies’ as opposed to press conferences. The ‘press rallies’ have party supporters and zealots chanting and booing reporters that ask ‘sensitive’ or ‘difficult’ questions. Such press conferences are intimidating and hostile to the media.
The current administration scored high marks by changing the manner and nature of such conferences. The conferences were restricted to the media and relevant government ministers and technocrats. We believe the conferences were now free and supported constitutional provisions on media freedom and freedom of expression. We are, however, disappointed that we seem to be retrogressing if the recent conference is anything to go by. We saw party supporters present at the press conference chanting and booing reporters. This was sad and a step backwards.
The media cannot operate without access to information. Press conferences are a key platform for the media to access accurate information and engage the president on matters of national importance. We cannot accuse the media of being unprofessional when we are not giving them the tools and support to do their job. The media needs information to effectively do their job.
So in all fairness, the media has persevered and remained professional despite serious reports of threats and intimidation during the period the pressers were seriously hostile and intimidating and continue to be so today. Others would have stopped asking questions at such meetings or completely shy away altogether.
How do you respond to media reports that came in the aftermath of the press conference on acts of intimidation from some party functionaries present at the said press briefing?
As a watchdog that promotes and defends media freedom and freedom of expression we are strongly opposed to such conferences because they are a threat to the very principles and core values that we promote. We believe such conferences restrict rather than facilitate access to information as well as media freedom and freedom of expression. It is important to know that press conferences are by design a platform where the media ask questions and access information. Hostile and intimidating conferences limit the media’s right to access information and by extension the public’s right to know. Two sets of rights are, therefore, violated when a journalist’s right to report is restricted as is the case with hostile presidential press conferences.
How does Namisa read the presence of ruling party ‘zealots’ at such conferences?
The presence of party zealots can be construed as a strategy by those in power to instill fear in people and reporters critical of the state. It sends a wrong message to the public. Presidential press conferences are supposed to be restricted to key people and individuals relevant to the subject or issues at hand. The presence of party supporters has a ‘chilling’ effect on scribes. Others consider it deliberate to instill fear in journalists that want to ask what the authorities consider ‘bad’ questions.
Was the President justified to blame the media ‘for fueling’ rumours about his illness and purported death?
Every person, including the President, is entitled to his/her own opinion. What is important is whether as a sector we conducted ourselves in a professional manner in as far as the rumours about his illness and death are concerned, which is debatable. We believe the media did not have the necessary information in the first place and government did not do the public any justice by withholding critical information on the health of the president.
We believe this is where investigative journalism comes in. It is wrong to publish half-baked stories that leave readers with more questions than answers when they actually rely on the media for answers. We need accurate information and the truth which can at times be revealed with pain staking effort of investigative writers. We are blessed with such writers but whether they managed to do their job or not is a different story.
The president clearly stipulated his desire to have a cordial working relationship with the media but gave his own conditions. How do you advise the media to respond to his call in a country where media houses are increasingly categorised as either pro or anti-government?
It is sad that our media is categorised as pro or anti-government. What needs to guide, shape and define our sector is our professional framework or code of conduct and professional standards of truth, balance, fairness, objectivity, accuracy and public interest. These principles set the condition and parameters within which we should operate and the public and posterity will judge us against these standards and not captains of industry, politicians or media owners and managers.
Let us always remember that the public remain the ultimate judge of what we do as a sector and the image and impression that we project is what can build or destroy our media houses.
What in return should the country’s media expect from the President who has always claimed to be well-versed in the trade?
We expect the president to respect and uphold constitutional guarantees on media freedom and freedom of expression and engage the media as a partner in development and not a means to an end as most people and organisations do.
We expect the president to show and demonstrate his commitment to media freedom and freedom of expression by creating a conducive environment for journalists to operate freely in the country—for example by barring party supporters from presidential press conferences, repealing anti-media legislation, enacting the Access to Information (ATI) Bill and opening up of State broadcasters, Malawi Broadcasting Corporation (MBC) Radio and Television.