One famous Russian writer and playwright Mikhail Bulgakov once said: “I am a passionate supporter of [press] freedom, and I consider that if any writer were to imagine that he could prove he didn’t need that freedom, then he would be like a fish affirming in public that it didn’t need water.”
The media throughout the world, especially current affairs and journalism have fought and continue to fight hard for freedoms of the press, expression and access to public information, among other freedoms and rights. In Malawi, freedoms of the press and expression are guaranteed by the country’s Constitution while the battle for freedom to access public information is still on.
Today, African countries are voting more than in any other period in history. If voting is anything to go by, democracy is taking root in Africa. Consequently, most legal frameworks on the continent have liberalised media laws to make room for freedom of the media. This is also in line with Article 19 of The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which states: “Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.”
In honour of these freedoms, May 3 was set aside as World Press Freedom Day. This year, the day is being celebrated under the theme: ‘Let Journalism Thrive! Towards Better Reporting, Gender Equality, and Society in the Digital Age’. Here in Malawi, the celebrations organised by Misa-Malawi are taking place in Mzuzu.
Malawi journalism, like elsewhere, still has a lot of challenges though, which means May 3 must be a day to celebrate media freedoms as well as a moment of reflection on persisting challenges.
Francis Nyamnjoh, Professor of Social Anthropology at University of Cape Town (UCT), South Africa observes that examination of most legal frameworks in Africa reveal a craving by governments to control, which leaves little doubt that lawmakers still perceive journalists as potential troublemakers who must be policed. The tendency, he adds: “Is for new laws to grant freedom in principle while avoiding, often by administrative nexus, the curtailment of press freedom in practice.”
These issues are real in Malawi as seen through the struggle to have Access to Information Bill debated in Parliament and passed into law. The bill was drafted 15 years ago and Malawi is now with a fourth president yet the bill is still gathering dust. However, it is important to point that these obstacles are visible mostly because they hinge on national legal frameworks. Thus, it is easy to accuse the government of abusing power and stifling democratic freedoms.
Less pronounced are equally pertinent issues of media’s overreliance on corporate world for funding—through grants and advertising. Powerful national and multinational corporations throughout the world wield more power than central governments. This is not new, USA’s The Nation Magazine observed this as far back as May 1873 in its editorial: ‘The Growth of Corporate World and Decline of Government Power’. Emerging from a dictatorship where there are no media freedoms, it is easy to see why Malawi media fraternity is much more concentrated on legal frameworks rather than corporate influence.
Corporations are making obscene profits at the expense of poor Malawians. Media have to question and explain these issues. It is not enough to report on profits declared and tax paid by corporations and their various donations across the country.
These donations are only a drop in the ocean, banks and mobile phone companies are making over 100 percent profits in this country—reported by the media of course through the dreaded ‘he said or she said’ way, with little critical analysis. Corporations pay public relations officers to do their bidding. Journalism must not do the same. Even in Malawi, journalists and PR folks are fond of calling each other ‘colleagues’.
Earlier this year there was a media ‘controversy’ when President Peter Mutharika gave K50 000 to each journalists he hosted at Sanjika Palace. These were senior journalists, some of whom hold managerial positions within their organisations. Some of the journalists returned the money because they felt pocketing it would have implications on their public image and trust.
Some donated the money to various causes while others kept it. But it does not matter who did what with the money. The point is, the money rightly polarised opinion because Mutharika is a politician, a public figure and the money was rightly seen as buying favours. Some of the journalists who received the money argued that they could not be bought by K50 000.
They are right. Studies have shown that most senior reporters are well paid; it is junior reporters who get peanuts. So, perhaps, Mutharika miscalculated the move or indeed he did not mean to bribe the senior scribes.
The furore that the money caused is understandable, yet journalists do not question corporate donations and sponsorship. Corporate world, like politicians, are interested parties. They too crave favourable coverage from the media. Their public image matters too, if not much more than politicians. When we talk about media’s watchdog role, it is not just politicians at question, private sector as well.
As professors of journalism, Emily Bell, Clay Shirky and Chris Anderson from Columbia Journalism School, New York University and The City University of New York, respectively noticed in 2012: “Journalism exposes corruption, draws attention to injustice, holds politicians and businesses accountable for their promises and duties. It informs citizens and consumers, helps organise public opinion, explains complex issues and clarifies essential disagreements. Journalism plays an irreplaceable role in both democratic politics and market economies.”
The importance of this quotation is its emphasis that journalism is not just there to keep politicians on their toes, but business and commercial interests too. The genuine worries about politicians’ money within journalism must also apply to the corporate world.
Misa-Malawi is hosting a Press Freedom Day gala with sponsorship from the corporate world. Airtel has donated K3 million and there are various awards sponsored by corporations and business interests. Misa-Malawi may not be financially independent. Yet, one wonders if such donations and sponsorship should not also be questioned, as it was rightly the case with Mutharika’s money? As press freedom is celebrated, is it not important that we also reflect on these pertinent issues engulfing the industry?
It is important that freedoms of press and speech are guaranteed and guarded by the country’s legal frameworks. Yet, it is equally important to realise that such freedoms are endangered by powerful corporations, more so that media institutions are mainly dependent on corporate world for survival.
I do not have solutions to these issues, but it is important that the media fraternity in the country recognise and open up to these pertinent issues.
Media content is not just shaped by regulations, it is also shaped by ownership and economic interests, giving corporations enormous power on media content. Restrictive media regulations do not only hamper free press and freedom of expression, it also stifles democracy and good governance. The same is the case with unguarded corporate influence. Such corporate influence is what economist Noreena Hertz called ‘Silent Takeover’, in her 2000 thesis on Global capitalism and the death of democracy. Will Malawi media stand firm and guard its freedoms from monied corporations?
*The author is an academic, communications specialist, current affairs writer and blogger.
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