Information is power, they say. And, an informed citizenry makes informed decisions. Media play a crucial role in mediating the space between citizens and institutions that make up the State. This allows media to operate within a framework that should be biased towards the most marginalised, dispossessed and silenced in society.
Although we live in an Information Age, values that are at the heart of journalism have never changed –pursuing of Social Justice. As journalists try to fulfil this mandate, they soon discover who the enemies of social justice are. In most societies, these are the rich, powerful and famous, men and women of influence and in whose interest social justice must not be a reality.
To live in a society found on principles of social justice is to demand that those who are privileged give up their privileges in favour of allowing the less privileged to acquire status that engenders dignity, creates opportunities and allow for fair and humane treatment. If this sounds like common sense, it’s because it is. So where are most societies getting it wrong?
Some of the most significant reasons are, of course, contributions that are made by media towards upholding anti-social justice tenets such as inequality, poverty and injustice. The Information Age is revealing several challenges for media, – how they operate and how information is actually sourced and distributed.
For mainstream (or traditional) media, the immediate instinct has been to figure out a way of surviving – sustainability. For new (or social) media, the question to answer is this: how can money be made out of this? Unwittingly, therefore, the most important developments of our time have been reduced to a matter of Capital (money) and not the extent to which social justice can be achieved using either channel.
This is not an accident. It is a manifestation of the evolution of the global political economy, which has paved the way for Capital to rule our lives by moderating our desires, exchanges and conflicts. Ironically, Capital has relied on media capture to ensure that your most trusted sources of information are the ones that deliver only those messages that are consistent with its desires. It is, therefore, very difficult – if not sacrilegious – to question the ‘wisdom’ of Capital and worse, to confront it with the ‘inconvenience’ of Social Justice.
Our media in Malawi have not been immune to this. In fact, the stunted growth suffered by the media sector since 1994 has always been a stark reminder of how much hard work needs to be done to prop the fortunes of media in Malawi. Yes, we now have a lot more media than we had in 1994 and the numbers will keep going up, largely thanks to the reduced costs of digital publishing.
Worth gauging, also, is the sum total of the contributions made by our media in promoting social justice. Here, most media are likely to be found wanting. While this is very problematic, it is also understandable, largely because of the stunted growth mentioned above. But then, if information is power, and informed citizens are able to exercise that power by making informed decisions, then the bar should be set very high. Citizenship is not going to wait for Media to get their act together before it starts being enjoyed. In that vein, therefore, media must not be ambivalent about their position and hide behind history to neglect and betray their mandate in the creation of a just society.
Even at their lowest, media in Malawi have produced some great journalism that has proved their capacity to take the side of most marginalised, dispossessed and silenced in society. These are the poorest of the poor, the voiceless and our media have been able to express not only their hopes and aspirations, but their pain too. This must be acknowledged. Of course, when they have done so, those whose power is threatened by the poor gaining voice and accessing media, have been quick to condemn the media and attempt to silence them.
President Peter Mutharika’s recent remarks in which he singled out The Daily Times and Zodiak Broadcasting Station (ZBS) as being anti- his government can be located within this sphere of fear, paranoia and bullying. If it’s about how these media reported on Mutharika’s extended trip to the United States, then the president only has himself to blame for not fully understanding and appreciating the role Information plays in governance.
In that regard, what’s more disgusting is a president who, in 2016, attacks the media he does not like in order to score cheap political points.
To be continued next week.