The history of having Presidential press officers in Malawi is only 21 years old. And many are hired on political lines rather than professional acumen; hence, they have little knowledge of what the job entails. Dr Hastings Kamuzu Banda hated the media. He rarely entertained journalists, let alone allowed them to interview him, except in 1979, when he gave a rare interview to the BBC in Blantyre, at which he intimidated the journalist.
All that changed in 1994, when the President opened up to the media. Bakili Muluzi convened his first press conference at his house in Naperi in Blantyre soon after winning elections.
A presidential press officer plays a critical role in communicating information from Sate House to the public through the media. They are the ones supposed to be knowledgeable about government and other critical issues at Sate House.
However, many of those who have worked as presidential press officers have behaved as party activists. Instead of providing credible information; they issue out propaganda; refute information even when people are expressing their opinions and defending government or the President even on indefensible issues. The recent vendetta between Presidential press officer Gerald Viola and the media is a case in point.
Government was hiding information from the media and the public about who sponsored the huge delegation to the UN General Assembly (UNGA) in New York. President Peter Mutharika had come under severe criticism from the opposition and civil society organisations (CSOs) for being insensitive to poor Malawians’ plight by taking more than 100 people to the UN at a time when the majority of the people are failing to make ends meet.
Viola assumed the role of a political party cadre and castigated the media, in particular Zodiak radio, for demanding information about who paid for the huge delegation.
As Presidential press officer, Viola could have taken the initiative to source the information and provide a breakdown of which organisations sponsored some delegates. What is government hiding?
While government was insisting that some members of the delegation were sponsored by NGOs and other organisations, Viola should have advised government and the President how important it was to provide information to the people. It is not only good for transparency and accountability, but it also builds trust between government and its people. After all, Malawians were eagerly awaiting that information.
Viola’s hostile behaviour towards the media has not only damaged his credibility, but that of government as well as it has shown that the DPP government is not prepared to listen to anyone.
Equally important, Viola’s behaviour is a reflection of lack of understanding of State House about the interface between public relations and the media. He fails to appreciate that he is the link between the government and the people through the media. He should, therefore, maintain a cordial and professional relations with the media. Abraham Lincoln said: “Let the people know the facts, and the country will be safe.” n