Mutharika must do right by us on ATI

access-to-information

WITHOUT MANY people realising it, the world has been plunged into a raging Information war of epic magnitude. That we are not seeing jets flying, tanks invading countries and missiles fired does not mean nothing is going on. It took one of the world’s biggest powers, the United States of America (USA) to bring the rest of the world closer to confronting a truth that has been lurking for a while now.

The US election last November yielded what some people describe as a ‘surprise’ outcome. But if you were really paying attention, the emergence of president-elect, Donald Trump, as victor is hardly a surprise. To pay attention, however, sometimes requires that you do not pay attention to certain things as well. And, when it comes to Media – mainstream media especially – paying less attention has profound merit.

To his credit, Trump understood this point very well and made sure it was central to how he ran his campaign. He not only cast aspersions on mainstream broadcast media like Cable News Network (CNN) and print media like The New York Times, but he went further to directly tell these media exactly what he thought of them – lapdogs being stroked by their masters (The Establishment) so that no change happens, and millions of Americans continue to be disenfranchised.

You would think this is enough reason to limit the amount of coverage Trump got from the very same media he was attacking, and making it known that he did not need. But no, each attack got Trump more and more coverage and the more he stayed in the limelight, the more time he had to send his message across. It is one of the biggest puzzles of our time, the way in which most US mainstream media – ostensibly discerning, progressive and forward-looking – swallowed Trump’s political communication strategy hook, line and sinker!

Maybe it’s not a puzzle at all. With Trump in the limelight, accompanied by an ever-present aura of controversy, mainstream media in the US needed him to lead their news coverage in an attempt to maintain, if not grow, audiences, re-assert themselves as authoritative sources of information and stay in business. This election, therefore, was also about the survival of mainstream media in the US as we know them. The ratings mattered.

The Internet has been a wonderful revelation to Journalism and Media. It has also been a fierce challenge to the same and on most occasions, it is has become an albatross. With anyone connected to the Internet being a potential publisher who can command unprecedented global reach within months, if not days, business models or Journalism have imposed rethinks and Media are evolving at such a breathtaking pace that the rigid structures if of mainstream media cannot cope with.

It is no surprise, therefore, that popular US media are ganging up against WikiLeaks, a whistleblowing platform, and ‘Hackers’ – code for Internet activists – who, only a few years ago, were the toast of the ‘Internet Revolution’ but are now being treated with caution at best and disdain at worst. ‘Russian Hackers’, according to Hillary Clinton, decided this election, and not her own electoral incompetency.

The appearance of – for want of a better term – Hackers (real or imagined) in electoral processes around the world has serious consequences and implications for it directly connects to the heart of Democracy. As technology becomes a key component of most democratic processes, elections especially, integrity of such is taking on new shapes and meaning. It is business unusual.

At the heart of all this is, of course Information, and Information is Power, as the adage goes. We are now living in age where this Power is being amassed, tested and tasted. The future, therefore, belongs to those who can harness the Power of Information and exercise it in such as way that their will and preferences prevail. But what kind will and preferences would these be? Democratic? Autocratic? Pragmatic?

The recently-passed Access to Information Bill in Malawi does not really account for most of the above. Over the past decade, there have been some significant lobby and advocacy initiatives directed at ensuring that Malawi gets the most relevant and acceptable law as possible. In the same time too, a lot has changed and in some parts, our understanding of access to information has been overtaken by events.

That said, the Bill passing is a good development that paves way for both broad and nuanced discussion on what legalities we want to associate the access to Information in Malawi with. For that reason, president Peter Mutharika has no choice but to quickly assent and sign the Bill into Law. Further delay will cost us more time and more importantly, a chance at testing the strength of the law in building an open, accountable and democratic society.

In that society, we will also have to understand the power and influence technology is having over our lives and craft appropriate responses to such influence. In this regard, Malawians will have to be more forward-looking by embracing change while at the same time insisting on values that enhance, not reverse, our livelihoods.

I hope, sincerely, that president Mutharika understands the historical moment he finds himself in.

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