THE STANCE recently taken by media owners and managers to give president Mutharika’s government a black out if threats on media freedom and freedom of expression continue is worth supporting. This is a move that should be supported by all progressive journalists as well as citizens who believe in the role of the media in a democracy.
Meeting at Mount Soche Hotel in Blantyre, these media owners and managers recognised the “highly belligerent attitude that the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) government has taken against the independent media to silence it from telling Malawians the truth.”
As leader of the DPP, Mutharika has not been shy to lead the charge against media freedom in Malawi. Without doubt, his careless and frivolous comments will embolden his supporters, most of whom are given to sycophancy and zealotry. The import of these threats and subsequent action might be too ghastly to contemplate, given what we have seen in the past.
But even these people, too, need to know and understand just how vital a free press is to democracy and how unhelpful any motivation from their leader to threaten media freedom will be. As I have previously written, this country, Malawi, is always in a state of continual becoming, it does not belong to one person, let alone a family. Hence, whatever we do, and more importantly, whatever is done by those who have power must strive to reflect this principle so as to avoid causing damage and creating complications for future generations.
It within this vein, I believe, that the declaration that came out of the Mount Soche meeting recognised that “there is great opportunity to assist the people of Malawi to remain informed on issues that impact on their lives and to provide them with platforms through our media houses, to discuss, debate and engage their elected leaders on such issues.”
Such citizen activity should not occur as a favour granted to us by the DPP government. Hell no! It is the very basis of negotiating our existence as Malawians as we seek to fulfil our hopes, dreams and aspirations. Therefore, for anyone, least of all a president, to hinder this by threatening media freedom and freedom of expression is to not only exhibit the highest form of executive arrogance but also, to show contempt for democratic culture.
The media owners and managers are quite correct, in this regard, to insist that “no media house can do this [grant access to information] in an atmosphere of intimidation; where successive government administrations fail to uphold their pledges to pass into law the Access to Information Bill and where journalists and media houses are subjected to intimidation, threats and violence by successive Heads of State and their agents.
Malawi, as I have pointed out in the last two weeks, 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. 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.
Therefore, Peter Mutharika’s 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.
If it is going to take media blackouts to drive this point home then it simply has to be done, without fail. Expectedly, not many media will be brave enough to follow this route, which will be a great shame. In our context, however, this is understandable, although highly regrettable. The few media institutions that can pursue this action will put themselves on the correct side of history, never mind the immediate consequences.
In the long run, principles of media freedom and freedom of expression will have to be cherished by the broader citizenry, not just by those in close proximity to the space. As citizens, we all have a stake in this, if not for ourselves, then for posterity.