Freedom of the press under threat in Malawi and beyond

Throughout the free and democratic world, a free and pluralistic press is the vital and very substance that guarantees the longevity of democracies. It therefore, came as a total shock, when President Donald Trump in his first month as the 45th President of the United State, declared the media (aka press) as the enemy of the people of the United States. This was a follow up to his on-going battle with the media in which he labeled numerous various houses, including CNN, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, as fake news.

The free press in the US is as old as the Republic, 240 years old and counting. There is something afoot in the Trump anti-press sentiments. When government missteps, an enmity brews between it and the press.

Here in Malawi, a similar battle of wits appears to be a recurrent standard between elected officials and the press. The most recent attack meted out to the press is Minister of Civic Education, Culture and Community Development Patricia Kaliati’s tirade that labeled journalists in the country as corrupt and destroyers.

Minister Kaliati, without offering any proof to back the wide-sweeping claim, said journalists are paid by opponents of the government to write negative articles about the government.

In recent past, Minister of Information Nicholas Dausi has also lashed out at the media as being controlled by opposition parties in the country. These viewpoints he,D by members of the executive and other authorities, are not new, but they are surprising that they continue to flourish even 20 years after becoming a democratic nation.

Before tackling the central issue of freedom of the press and why is exists and must enjoy a firm place at the table of governance in democratic Malawi, The Maravi Post wishes to educate every concerned person in Malawi and perhaps even beyond our borders.

There is a tendency to behold that every time the word government comes up in a conversation, both listener and talker automatically believe the discussion is about the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP). Nothing could be further from the truth.

The Government of Malawi, like all governments in democracies, is made up of three arms or sections. There is the Executive Branch comprised of the State President and cabinet ministers; the Legislature (Parliament) comprised of members of parliament and headed by the Speaker of Parliament in a governing structure made up of ruling party members of parliament and opposition party members of parliament; and the Judiciary, comprised of judges and headed by the Chief Justice.

These three arms make up the governing structure of the Republic of Malawi. Partly because, we are still with the mindset of Dr. Kamuzu Banda’s model of democracy, there has been a tendency (we have never been able to shake off), that the party with a president in the state house is the ruling party. In a democracy, that party is simply the executive branch; in the parliament, it is the MCP that has the majority of parliamentarians and in essence “controls” the Malawi legislature.

The Judiciary is an apolitical entity and exists to interpret our laws, and to adjudicate disputes between government and entities or individual or between individuals.

The press exists to hold Government accountable, especially when it missteps. U.S. Supreme Court Justice Hugo Black in the case of the New York Times Co. v. United States (1971) asserted that the press is to serve the governed, not the governors.

The freedom of the press is protected by the Republican Constitution of Malawi. Governments have come and gone, but freedom of the press has remained. Freedom of the press is critical to a democracy because it ensure the government (executive, legislative and the judiciary) are accountable to the people. A free press exists and its modus operandi is as a watchdog that investigates and reports on government wrongdoing.

Nobel Peace Laureate Amartya Sen said that there can be no hunger in a democracy where there is freedom of the press. This is very true because the press is relentless in its desire to bring the governors of our land to account for their actions or in our Malawi recent past, lack of it.

MCP leader Dr. Lazarus Chakewra is noted for his commendation of the Malawi press along with some Civil Society Organizations (CSOs) for the vigilance and persistence with which the infamous Zambia-to-Malawi maize fraud case was exposed in the press.

Many colleagues in the press will rightly remember how late Ralph Tentani blew the whistle on envelopes given to journalist at one State House event for the press. This miserable saga even costed one of our own his posh State House post. The cash envelopes had less monies than was allocated. This reminds us of the song “If you live in a glass house, don’t throw stones.”

The press is not a some-time entity — here today and gone tomorrow — the press is here to stay. It is in fact, the fourth and vital arm of the government. The democratic government.

 

 

 

 

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