Hon. Folk, around New Year’s Day this year the Media Institute of Southern Africa (Misa) Malawi Chapter released its first assessment of the gains and losses for media freedom under President Lazarus Chakwera’s Tonse Alliance administration.
The evaluation measured the period between June last year (when Malawians voted the MCP-led government in power) to December 31 when the curtain finally closed on 2020.
In its assessment, the media watchdog highlighted gray areas on media freedom, reminding Malawians that chances of democratic reversal were still rife—even under Chakwera’s rule.
For instance, it singled out intimidation and threats on journalists by some excessively overzealous agents of the current government.
Fast forward to April 2120, the local media still operates in a hostile environment because some people remain bent on frustrating the few democratic gains this country has painfully achieved over the years just to survive politically or in public offices.
Just a few days ago this intimidation on media freedom took another twist when Malawi Police Service arbitrarily summoned and briefly detained two journalists in Lilongwe over their work.
According a Misa Malawi, one reporter was summoned to the Area 30 police Headquarters in Lilongwe on April 6 over a story in which he quoted a source ‘criticising’ Chakwera’s last minute failure to reorder his Cabinet despite several assurances from his office.
This was after Kawale Police had earlier detained another journalist briefly on April 2 for over two hours for covering a ‘situation’ where the police were ‘main actors’ as they attempted to bring order.
I must say such acts by police were prevalent during past regimes and were usually committed by trigger-happy uniformed officers who betrayed their calling and were eager to use violence as a weapon to silence journalists.
Which also begs the questions: do some officers in the police service really understand that media freedom is enshrined in the country’s Constitution and that their duty is simply to safeguard and not violate it?
I dare say ignorance of this law is the reason why many officers routinely trample on fundamental human rights, including freedom of expression encompassing freedom of information and press freedom—all of them enablers of many other rights.
No wonder the Human Rights Defenders Coalition (HRDC) has also joined Misa Malawi in querying the Inspector General of Police George Kainja on recent police attacks on press freedom.
As noted by HRDC chairperson Gift Trapence, the action by the police is nothing but an attempt to gag and stifle press freedom (freedoms of expression, opinion and a free press) although the police denied stifling these liberties.
Misa Malawi’s concern is that such acts of intimidation, arbitrary arrests and detentions of journalists will reflect badly on Malawi’s standings on global press freedom indexes.
But I dare say such actions by police can also reflect badly of the current administration in general and Chakwera, in particular.
Already we have witnessed some past and present leaders whose legacies went down the drain by the unsanctioned actions of their subordinates in government who fought futile battles in the name of the landlord which just ended up messing their reputations.
Hon. Folks, in case some have forgotten, ex-US president Harry Truman frequently used the phrase “the buck stops here [at him]”, implying that all the goings-on that occur in a particular administration in the end reflect on the President.
Therefore, it is not too late for authorities in government to improve on their conduct.
The folks in power, including ordinary public offices also need to be reminded that party administrations come and go while the government, including the media which is its fourth arm, remains intact.
This is why every citizen must play their role in developing Malawi from various fields of occupation without feeling an obsessive need to exercise control over other people’s rights.
Ironically, this is happening against a perceived culture of ‘perfectionism’, where some government officers seem to have developed an oversight phobia and they believe making political ‘mistakes’ or leaving all freedoms untagged would smear the Tonse government.