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Journalists are not trouble markers: Ode to Malawi media

On 1st November 2014 Weekend Nation newspaper published an investigative piece on corruption and malpractices at immigration offices in Blantyre, particularly its passport-issuing department/ section. It was a refreshing piece of journalism that is becoming rare these days, not only in Malawi but across the boarders as well. The Weekend Nation team that worked on the story deserve a pat on the back.

Over the years it has become a cliché to call the news media the ‘watchdog’, the ‘fourth estate’ etc. in relation to journalists’ public service role. All these underline the fact that journalism is public service. At its best, it is public good. This is why George Kasakula, editor of Weekend Nation, wrote on his column of 8th November 2014 (commenting on a different story not the immigration one) thusly:

“There is nothing more rewarding in our work as journalists than seeing our efforts leading to some action and in the course of doing so, save a life or alleviate the suffering of a long forgotten community. In a quest to set the public agenda and get it to talk about things that matter in society, it gives utmost pleasure to any journalist when those entrusted with public office do something to reverse an ill that caused pain to an obscure community in some God forsaken corner of the country after an expose.”

I do not see this as a self-congratulatory statement from Mr. Kasakula, I see it as a relief from a journalist who has finally seen some reward for a well-deserved work. I do not work as a journalist, though I occasionally do journalistic work. I work in academia; media, communications and journalism in particular are my interest. What I have observed about Malawi media, especially in its role as a ‘watchdog’/ ‘fourth estate’, is the missing link between media exposés and government’s willingness to follow up on such issues.

You could take the revelations of corruption at the passport office as an example. What will come out of it? I am aware that unlike the other three arms of government, executive, legislature and judiciary, which have constitutional mandate to carryout their respective duties, media’s ‘fourth estate’ role is self-appointed and self promoted. Yet, it is naïve to pretend that the state does not recognise the important role the media plays in society. The state chooses to ignore the media when it suits the interest state and its agencies.

Sheila S. Coronel (2008) observed that the idea of the press as a ‘fourth estate’, as an institution that exists primarily as a check on those in public office, was based on the premise that the powerful states had to be prevented form over-stepping their bounds. The press working independently of the government, even as its freedoms were guaranteed by the state, was supposed to help ensure that this was so. She further noted:

“Today even in countries where democracy and a fairly new experiment or even in those, like China, where democracy and a free press have yet to take root, the notion of the press as watchdogs of the power is embedded in the self definition of journalists and in varying degrees, also in public expectations of the media.”

Of course it is impossible that the state and its agents, be it Anti-Corruption Bureau, city assemblies, security agents etc. can act on every news report and story. Yet, it is also true that media in Malawi often work in isolation in its role of public service. It is baffling that on occasions such as Anti-Corruption Day, the media is lauded as a partner is graft busting but in reality the media are regarded as irritants. How ironic that the 2013 Anti-Corruption Day was themed: “Media: A Partner in Fighting Corruption.”

Francis Nyamnjoh, Professor of Anthropology at University of Cape Town noticed that an examination of most legal frameworks in Africa reveals a craving to control that leaves little doubt that those in position of power whom the media are supposed to monitor, perceive journalists as potential troublemakers who must be policed.

The recent attack on a BNL Times journalist, Archibald Kasakula, for simply doing his work of gathering information when Blantyre City Council officials were removing vendors from the city’s streets is a best example. Nyamnjoh noticed that the tendency is for laws in African countries to grant freedom in principle while providing, “often by administrative nexus, the curtailment of press freedom in practice.”

This is specifically the reason why media reports and news stories in Malawi are hardly acted upon. For most people in positions of power, the media and journalists are a nuisance and not collaborators in public service. This is why Malawi media must always fight to get their way. Even important laws such as Access to Information and The Declaration of Table Mountain, these laws pave way for access to state held information and protection of journalists from unnecessary defamation and ‘insult’ laws, respectivel




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