Continued from last week
The epic failure by president Mutharika’s government to release information about his whereabouts while in the US point to the poverty of mind with which successive governments in Malawi have been run. It seems we have remained stuck in the 1964 time-warp, where the government is supposed to be a feared institution, with citizens playing a subservient role in it.
This is very unfortunate and Malawians have to take the blame for allowing this to happen to them. Ordinarily, governments are supposed to be at the service of the people, not the other way around. We do not exist for purposes of stroking the ego of the government. On the contrary, any serious government ought to ensure that it meets the expectations of its citizens by being accountable to them. Doing this is not a favour, it is the ultimate duty of a government towards its citizens.
But, of course, when you run a government on gossip and paranoia, accountability ceases to be top priority for you. You tend to focus, rather, on threats that exist either in your imagination or elsewhere known only by you. This is the fate successive governments in Malawi have suffered, ignorant of the fact that by virtue of being in power, citizens have a right to question you and demand answers.
This duty is often outsourced to media, who often have to play a watchdog role. As I mentioned last week, Malawi does not have the strongest media institutions in the world but these have, at least, shown us the potential they possess. You can fault our media on many fronts, with very good justification. I would be the first person to admit that. I know. However, it is imperative that we jealously guard what we have because anything weaker than this will not only be a blow to the fraternity but an entire setback to our democratic aspirations as a whole.
Against this backdrop, any government has a responsibility towards the media, in particular, the responsibility to protect media freedom and ensure a safe environment for journalists to do their work. A president issuing threats against media is not a very good or positive first step in this regard. In fact, the very action of threatening media shows the government’s state of imagination and how little it understands the role of the media in a democracy; if we are still a democracy.
Again, this is not to excuse media from being accountable themselves. But, if we must err as a country, then let us err on the side of freedom, not tyranny. If we must right wrongs, then let us do it from a point of view that engenders plurality of voices, not singularity. We have nothing to gain from having one less media house in Malawi. Or two, for that matter.
President Mutharika must lead by example here. This is 2016, not 1964. Societies today are driven by the exchange of information, not by silence. This view should overarch our approach to media as significant facilitators of information exchanges in society. Hence, if his threats are allowed to carry and go unchallenged, it is likely that they will also extend to other media that Mutharika dislikes. And this may well include social media platforms like Facebook, Twitter or even Instagram.
This is the seriousness of Mutharika’s threats against The Daily Times and Zodiak Broadcasting Station (ZBS). There is no telling if they stop with just these two institutions. In fact, you don’t have to like both these media for you to be able to speak against the president’s unfortunate threats directed at them. Our commitment to the principles of freedom of expression in a democracy should be enough for us to see the weight of Mutharika’s threats and speak against them.
As I wrote last week, Information is power. 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.
In light of these threats, media in Malawi must also begin to consider in whose service they are. If it is to the citizenry, then people will defend the media they believe in. Anything less might also be as equally disgusting as the threats against media freedom.