Wednesday, May 4, 2011


MAY 3, 2011

The United Nations set aside May 3, as World Press Freedom Day (WPFD), for
nations across the globe to reflect on the role the media plays in social
and economic development in their respective countries. It also offers an
opportunity for journalists and media workers to brainstorm on the
challenges and opportunities that are there in the course of executing
their duties.

Today, the Media Institute of Southern Africa (MISA) Malawi Chapter has
joined the international community in commemorating WPFD. Just like in
2010, MISA Malawi, in collaboration with other partners, has this year
organized regional celebrations to increase the hype and excitement in a
bid to offer an opportunity to both the media and members of the public to
grace these activities.

The 2011 celebrations started on April 23 in Blantyre, Southern Malawi
with a freedom march from Kamuzu stadium to Blantyre Sports Club where a
panel discussion was conducted. Journalists were joined in the march by
advocates of media freedom and freedom of expression. The topic for the
panel discussion was “State of Freedom of Expression in Malawi: Are
Citizens Free to Express Themselves?” The aim of this debate was to give
people an opportunity to assess freedom of expression in the country.
Panelists were drawn from the academia, civil society, government and the
media fraternity.

The celebrations continued in Lilongwe, Central Malawi on April 30 where a
freedom march was held from Lilongwe Old Town post office to Silver Club
Conference Hall. Another panel discussion was held on the topic “Access To
Information and New Media: Opportunities and Challenges for Malawi”. The
aim of this debate was to give an opportunity to the citizenry to assess
relevance of 21st Century media in promoting free expression and access to

The climax of this year’s celebrations will be on May 7, 2011 in Mzuzu,
Northern Malawi where journalists as well as advocates of media freedom
and freedom of expression will yet again come together to crown it all
with a freedom march from Obrigado Leisure Centre to St. John of God
Centre where a panel discussion will be conducted on the topic “Millennium
Development Goals and New Media: Opportunities and Challenges for Malawi.”

The central theme for this year’s celebrations is “21st Century Media: New
Frontiers, New Barriers.” This theme seeks to cast the spot light on the
importance of new media in promoting transparency and exchange of
information even in societies that do not promote free expression.

As nations the world over are commemorating the day, MISA Malawi would
like to highlight some developments that have occurred over the past year,
which had an impact either positively or negatively in as far as media
freedom and freedom of expression in the country is concerned.

Of great concern is the amendment of Section 46 of the Penal Code which
empowers a minister to ban publications deemed ‘not in the public
interest.’ Interestingly, government argues that the amended clause is in
line with Malawi’s democratic values.

The old section read:

“If the Minister is of the opinion that the importation of
a) any publication
b) all publications published by any person
would be contrary to the public interest, he may in his absolute
discretion, by order, prohibit the importation of such publication or
publications and in the case of a periodical publication may by the same
or subsequent order prohibit the importation of any past or future issues

The amended section states:

“If the Minister has reasonable grounds to believe that the publication or
importation of any publication would be contrary to the public interest,
he may, by order published in the gazette prohibit the publication or
importation of such publications”.

The operative word in the old section was importation. The amended version
may have removed the minister’s “absolute discretion” and replaced it with
“reasonable grounds” but in essence it has expanded the minister’s powers
to ban not just importation of certain materials but local publications as
well. Further, the minister remains with power to ban publications without
any guiding framework.

Arguably, the minister can decide to ban any publication critical of the
State on the pretext of safeguarding public interest. This is a serious
threat to media freedom and fails to satisfy the test on limitations on
rights as provided for under Section 44 (2) of the Malawi Constitution.
Section 44 (2) of the Constitution requires that any law that seeks to
limit the exercise of human rights should be “reasonable,” “recognized by
international human rights standards” and “necessary in an open and
democratic society,” and Section 46 of the Penal Code, as amended, clearly
fails this test.

Looking at recent developments in the country – government advertising ban
in all publications of Nation Publications Limited namely, The Nation,
Weekend Nation, Nation on Sunday and Fuko early 2010 and ban on the
Weekend Times in November 2010 based on a 1964 legislation (Printed
Publications Act) because the paper ‘was not registered’ with the National
Archives – it is clear that the amendment was strategic and aimed at
providing government with a ‘modern’ legal framework to ban publications
critical of its policies and actions.
The environment has been hostile for journalists and media workers who
have often times been accused of unprofessionalism. Both members of the
public and some overzealous politicians have accused sections of the media
of bias towards one camp or another and generally, Journalists continue to
be booed at presidential press conferences when they ask questions deemed
irrelevant by party followers despite President Bingu wa Mutharika’s
assurance of media freedom in the country.

MISA Malawi will continue to lobby government, specifically the State
House, to consider scheduling presidential press conferences in secluded
places such as the VVIP lounge at the airport as has been the case in the
past or at state residences where journalists would feel more protected.
Such press conferences should also be restricted to the media. Some
opposition parties are also on record to have harassed journalists. An
example is a scuffle that ensued between former president Bakili Muluzi’s
bodyguards and a camera person for the state-controlled Malawi
Broadcasting Corporation (MBC) during one of the former president’s
appearance at the High Court. Such incidences are uncalled for and
retrogressive for our nascent democracy.
On freedom of expression, MISA Malawi is unease with the president’s
directive that any organization or grouping that intends to stage either a
commemoration or protest march, should deposit MK2 million (about US$13,
157) as payment for property that might be damaged in the course of the
march. In our view, this is a strategic move to gag people from expressing
themselves. This is also a violation of people’s constitutional right to
free expression.

MISA Malawi has also noted, with great concern, the increasing number of
injunctions that are being taken out against media houses, both print and
electronic, from publishing stories of prominent politicians or government
authorities for fear of tarnishing their image. Much as we appreciate that
it is the constitutional right of every Malawian to obtain an injunction,
MISA Malawi feels such tendencies are denying Malawians their right to
information and that they are in themselves an abuse of the courts.
On a positive note, however, MISA Malawi has noted the emergence of new
media such as online publications which have and continue to offer
Malawians and other information seekers an opportunity to have a wider
choice of news and information sources. Such publications include the
Maravi Post, Malawi Voice, Nyasatimes and other online publications. MISA
Malawi also acknowledges the freedom of information dissemination through
blogging, facebook and twitter, among other new media.

The emergences of these news media outlets attest to the fact that
Malawians are hungry for information. There was hope that the country’s
communications regulatory body, the Malawi Communications Regulatory
Authority (MACRA) would grant licenses to individuals and organizations
that had applied for radio and television licenses. It has been over a
year since MACRA advertised for frequencies but until today, such licenses
have not yet been granted. MISA Malawi is appealing to MACRA to expedite
the process of scrutinizing applications to enable more players in the
broadcasting sector. In our view, Malawi continues to experience
incidences of pirate broadcasting due to delays in granting frequencies in
areas where signals for some mainstream broadcasters are not available.

On the campaign for the enactment of Access To Information (ATI) Bill,
MISA Malawi applauds government, specifically the Ministry of Information
and Civic Education for spearheading the process of drafting a policy on
ATI. We strongly believe that once the policy has been fine tuned, the
bill will be taken to cabinet and finally to parliament for debate. It
needs not to be overemphasized that the ATI Bill is not only for the
media, but for members of the public as well.

In conclusion, as we celebrate World Press Freedom Day, MISA Malawi is
appealing to government authorities to consider making the environment
more free to journalists, media workers as well as advocates of media
freedom and freedom of expression by considering repealing all laws that
are inconsistent with the Constitution such as Section 46 of the Penal
Code and other laws that are, in our view, an insult to the media
fraternity in Malawi. MISA Malawi is also appealing to government to
consider advertising in all private media outlets.

A free media will result into a vibrant democracy and a transparent and
accountable nation.

Anthony Kasunda

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