Folks, APM’s anger at a press conference where a table was banged, words such as “stupid” and “nonsense” were uttered and a claim that our president is already a millionaire was targeted at the media.
It was meant to tell the media off in a language that stresses the contempt he has for this petty institution that doesn’t seem to know how not to cross the line when writing about the all-important and all-powerful office of the President.
The real issue here is an age-old power play between the presidency—the highest and arguably most powerful office in the land—and the media, particularly the private media which operates as private, commercial business of its owners but tends to speak for the public.
For the entire 21 years of multiparty democracy, elected politicians, especially in government, have questioned who elected the media to act as their watchdog. Not surprisingly, the opposition tends to be a little more media-friendly if only because by criticising those in government, exposing their weaknesses and scandals, the private media helps them to fight their battles.
Worth noting is the fact that neither side of the political divide genuinely does more than seek a marriage of convenience with the media. The opposition behaves much the same way as the former ruling party the moment it moves to the government side of the august House and its presidential candidate occupies the State House.
The former presidents under the multi-party system—JB, Bingu and Muluzi—‘befriended’ the media, at times promising to defend and respect the constitutional provision for free press while in opposition only to change and vilify it once in government.
Not only that, all the former heads of State and Government have vehemently resisted the pressure to enact an enabling law for Section 36 of the Constitution which provides for free press and that it be “accorded the fullest possible facilities for access to public information.”
Instead, they have all tried and tried to create safe havens in government for themselves and their cronies by undermining the media—using the State-run MBC and Malawi News Agency as propaganda tools much the same way Kamuzu Banda did under the one-party dictatorship—while, at the same time, ensuring that all the media-hostile statutes enacted during the colonial or one-party era remain intact to date.
At the same time, they have also all tried, albeit in vein, to punish the nosy media by denying it adverts from the public sector, arrest its members, discredit its stories on MBC or, in extreme cases, try to cobble laws with a “finer mesh” for entrapping media players that become a pain in the wrong place.
To an extent, their tricks have paid dividends, especially in nurturing corruption as well as shielding mediocrity and impunity in high public places. Our presidents globe-trot in private jets with a begging bowl with a larger-than life entourage that includes staff whose duty is as petty as carrying an umbrella for them.
Ministers enjoy being chauffeur-driven in expensive Prados in this Corolla economy even when the budget allocation to important areas such as education, health, water, internal security, irrigation and infrastructural development continues to decline in real terms, slowing economic growth and improvement of living standards in the process.
While Kamuzu was prosecuted for claiming ownership of what belonged to the State—a case of absolute power corrupting absolutely—every other person who has assumed office after him, albeit under a system where supremacy has shifted from the presidency to the Constitution—also ended up as suspects of plunder after enjoying a make-believe life of opulence as State President.
The only difference being that the law hasn’t taken its course on any of the latter-day executive suspects, a testimony of impunity still reigning supreme despite there being a number of State-funded institutions meant to serve as watchdogs of the public against abuse by those entrusted with power.
It’s all because the President uses the powers he has to hire or fire those at the helm of these institutions to compromise their independence even if it’s guaranteed by the Constitution.
The watchdog institution that has proved a hard nut to crack is the media, especially in its plural form. What slips through the finger of one media is likely to be captured by one or two others.
In the case of newspapers, the fact that they thrive by selling the news they gather may appear a weakness at face value but it is also their strength. They have to remain credible for people to voluntarily spend K300 or more on a copy. Survival is like winning a vote of confidence only daily basis, not once in five years as is the case with the President and MPs.
More importantly, the media is probably the only private-sector business that’s provided for in the Bill of Rights section of the Constitution which can’t easily be amended or repealed, a factor that serves to emphasise its pivotal role in a democracy.
Which is why the President hasn’t been smart to try and slash muddy water on the media so early in his tenure. It just may boomerang badly on him, especially if the clash is on use of public resources at a time government is squeezing more and more revenue from a people whose incomes are shrinking by the day as the kwacha trips against major currencies.
So how do we fix the rift and move on? APM simply has to provide credible information on the size of the presidential delegation that accompanied him to New York, how much of public funds were spent on them and why. His spin doctors may also wish to indicate how transparent the President would be on future trips as a way of building bridges.
The alternative is to continue with the I-don’t-give-a-damn attitude and find other ways of fighting the media instead of embracing good governance tenets of transparency and accountability. We have three years to see how that plays. n