Saturday, March 10, 2012

MISA concerned about growing intolerance of media freedom in Malawi

Malawi Statement (Regional)

9 March 2012

The Regional Secretariat of the Media Institute of Southern Africa (MISA)
notes, with profound distress, the growing intolerance of media freedom
and freedom of expression in Malawi. Today, March 9, 2012, we received a
statement released by State House Press Officer, Albert Mungomo, and
titled: ‘Civil Society Organisations and Media Conduct Inciting Anarchy in
the Country.’

Ordinarily, a statement such as the one we received today would not
warrant this kind of response. Yet, coming as it does from a country that
is facing serious democratisation and governance challenges, we would like
to express our deepest concern over what we consider serious threats to
media freedom and freedom of expression in Malawi. It is also our hope
that the government of Malawi, president Bingu wa Mutharika in particular,
will be able to consider our point of view on the same issues.

One, we strongly disagree with the suggestion that the media in Malawi are
making it their vocation to demean and insult president Mutharika. In a
democracy, the media should be concerned with ‘shaping public opinion,
mediating the debate between the state and civil society, but also acting
as a watchdog over public process, against private gain. Free media
[therefore] are a prerequisite to development in the promotion of
democracy, human rights and governments.’

We take the above quotation from a communiqué issued in Lusaka, Zambia, by
the 7th Regional Meeting of the African, Pacific and Caribbean-European
Union (ACP-EU) Joint Parliamentary Assembly in February 2012, where Malawi
was represented. We find it odd, therefore, that the government of Malawi
does not share, or indeed, recognize that based on the above, democracy
should be about empowering citizens so that they are able to take
ownership of their own growth and development objectives, harmonising them
with national aspirations after interacting and engaging with differing
views. This sacrosanct activity is guaranteed and protected by the
Constitution of Malawi and is facilitated, on a daily basis, by the media.

Two, the law that the media are said to be in breach of, an insult law
regarding the national flag, emblems and names, is archaic and serves more
to provide evidence for the need for critical reform than anything else.

That the law still quotes a fine to be paid in Pound sterling and not in
Malawi Kwacha elucidates the fact that this piece of legislation remains
stuck in the time warp of colonial and repressive tradition and also
proves the urgency with which legal reforms must take place in Malawi,
forty-eight years after independence.

Several other laws of this nature and age exist in Malawi; the Official
Secrets Act (1913), the Printed Publications Act (1947) and the Censorship
and Control of Entertainment Act (1968. Still, there exists also Section
46 of the Penal Code, which empowers the Minister of Information to ban
any publication that may be deemed not to be in the public interest, as
defined by that minister. Clearly, these laws have no role to play in a
democracy and while we are fully aware that some of them have been
referred to the Law Commission for review, the fact that they still remain
active while under review does not inspire confidence, as they may be
permanently condemned to the review process.

Three, we are shocked that the government of Malawi is insisting that
president Mutharika ‘has never ordered the arrest’ of media practitioners
and human rights defenders. This is not the first time that this claim is
being made. We are aware of cases where journalists have been threatened
at press conferences for ‘asking the wrong questions,’ verbally assaulted
and threatened by senior government officials, and had their company
vehicles torched, to list but a few incidents. We deeply regret,
therefore, to note how this government defines what constitutes a media
freedom violation.

The statement also singles out phrases used by leading opinion writers in
Malawi to refer to president Mutharika. If the singling out of these
phrases ¬ does not constitute a threat then nothing else does. One of the
columnists and BBC Correspondent, Raphael Tenthani, who if famous for
using the phrase ‘Big Kahuna’ to refer to president Mutharika, has told
MISA that this phrase is actually respectful. “It means ‘the Big Boss.’ I
don’t know how it begins to be demeaning to the president. I have met the
president several times and we have joked about it for I use it almost
every week in my column. But I won’t stop using it because doing so would
be unwittingly admitting I have been disrespecting my president all these

MISA is aware also that on July 20, 2011, the day of mass demonstrations
in Malawi, the Malawi Communications Regulatory Authority (MACRA) ordered
all radio stations that were carrying live broadcasts of the lawful
demonstrations to stop all live broadcasts. That the statement from State
House chooses to ignore this fact by alleging sensational reporting on the
part of the radio stations which fell victim to this directive shows, we
are afraid, the signs of a government that may not be prepared to hear ¬
and confront ¬ the truth from its people.

Four, our concern also extends to the mention made by the statement
regarding social networks. The statement reads: ‘The State House monitors
carefully such networks that are hostile and probably careless in
demeaning the state president.’ We are extremely worried that the
government of Malawi may be conducting some illegal surveillance of
Internet use in Malawi based on their faulty perception that social
networks are inherently hostile.
This, in itself, reveals a profound lack of understanding of what the
Internet is and its role in a democracy. We will continue to pay close
attention to the tone and language directed at Internet use in Malawi as
we believe, based on the statement, that there exists a significant threat
to Freedom of Expression in Cyberspace in Malawi.

Lastly, we are of the view that the relationship between the government
and the media in Malawi would be beneficial from a process of mutual
engagement. We are most willing to further open room for lasting dialogue
between the government and media, in the firm belief that this would
provide a more enabling environment for media freedom, freedom of
expression and ultimately citizen empowerment.

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