President Joyce Banda has refused to sign the Table Mountain Declaration—a commitment which guarantees press freedom. In this interview, our reporter Paida Mpaso engages Misa Malawi chairperson Anthony Kasunda who explains the implications of the President’s decision.
President Joyce Banda has refused to sign the Table Mountain Declaration, what does this mean to the media freedom in Malawi?
In simple terms, the declaration is calling on African governments to repeal insult and defamation laws. The declaration aims at ensuring that journalists are not arrested on defamation or criminal libel charges. These are the laws which were mostly enacted by colonial governments. For example, the Protected Flags, Emblems and Names Act which still quotes a fine to be paid in Pound Sterling, the Official Secrets Act enacted in 1913; the Printed Publications Act enacted in 1947 and the Censorship and Control of Entertainment Act enacted in 1968.
These are just few examples of the laws that the Table Mountain Declaration is saying let’s get rid of because they limit media freedom. You know in Malawi some of these laws have been applied, journalists have been arrested. So, the rejection means we still live in fear that one day such laws may be applied. Unfortunately, the existence of these laws promotes self censorship in the media to run away from the law.
Q: What is contained in the declaration? And how important is this?
When media leaders across the globe gathered in Cape Town, South Africa in June 2007 under the auspices of the World Association of Newspapers and News Publishers and the World Editors Forum, they made an urgent call to African leaders to consider press freedom as key to sustainable economic, political, social and cultural development, prosperity and peace in Africa by repealing colonial laws that restrict press freedom. This call is what has come to be known as the Declaration of Table Mountain. It is very important that African leaders make a commitment to repeal the insult laws by signing this declaration. The ultimate goal is that governments must repeal these laws that limit media freedom and the importance of a free media cannot be overemphasised.
How will the President’s refusal to sign the declaration affect the media in Malawi?
As I have said, such laws promote self censorship among the media practitioners thereby denying people vital information. There is fear that if we publish this information, it will land us into trouble with law enforcers. So, the media may decide not to publish such information. Unfortunately, the loser is the public.
Q: A couple of days ago, Minister of Information Moses Kunkuyu released a statement that said the President supports the media, and now she has rejected the declaration, isn’t she sending mixed signals?
Sometimes what government agents say sound sweet to the ear, but means nothing as far as the situation on the ground is concerned. Such assurances have been made before, but the truth is governments, not only the present one, have clearly showed resistance to accept constructive criticism.
And because of that, the media is viewed as an enemy. But we have not lost hope because we have been assured a number of times by the President that she is a true friend of the media. She said and I quote: “Democracy without free press is not worth to be called a democracy at all.” So, as much as some things have changed for the better, we still believe government can do more and we will continue to lobby through engagements.
Misa in a statement says Banda has lost an opportunity to put her name on the world map as a President who is committed to promoting and defending democracy in the country, are you saying that, she is not promoting democracy in the country?
This was an opportunity which has been lost to show the whole world that she is ready to walk the talk. She is an international person, deservedly well recognised worldwide, why can’t she continue to be a role model to other African leaders by ensuring that the media is free in Malawi?
Q: What next for Misa?
We believe that the President might have been misinformed by some people who are privileged to give advice. We will continue to knock on her door. She is our mother and one day, she will listen to us and sign the declaration.