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MISA statement on the state of the media and freedom of expression

(MISA/IFEX) - 3 September 2010 - The Malawi Chapter of the Media Institute of Southern Africa (MISA-Malawi) has noted with disappointment that there is a lack of respect for media freedom and freedom of expression in the country. The media in Malawi continue to be threatened by government authorities and other sectors of society, including some members of the public.

The latest threats came from State President Dr. Bingu wa Mutharika, who has warned that he will close down media houses and arrest journalists who continue to report negatively about his administration. The president accused journalists in the country of deliberately misrepresenting facts when writing their stories.

MISA-Malawi is also aware of threats made towards individual journalists as well as media houses, from people who claim to have been defamed in stories written by the concerned reporters or published by a particular media house.

Such actions can easily be construed as a deliberate and strategic crackdown by those in authority on media houses deemed to be critical of the government. MISA-Malawi also feels that such actions instill fear in journalists and other media workers and lead to the overall assumption that the government is slowly but earnestly taking strategic steps at silencing the media.

In MISA-Malawi's view, the media in the country is fulfilling its rightful role as watchdog of society and taking a proactive role in alerting responsible authorities in order to put in place necessary measures to curb any impending crisis.

MISA-Malawi has always emphasized that it does not condone irresponsible reporting. The organisation encourages journalists in the country to be factual and thorough when writing their stories. Irresponsible or mercenary reporting should have no place in the country, and indeed elsewhere.

Journalists in the country have in the past sounded the alarm and played the whistle-blower role on corruption issues. The authorities acted on such news articles and arrested the culprits. The same media practitioners have in the past issued alerts about impending outbreaks of diseases and the authorities at the Ministry of Health have acted accordingly. The media should therefore be allowed to watch and keep guard against any developments in society.

We expect the authorities and indeed any other persons who have problems with journalists in the country to channel their complaints through media bodies such as MISA-Malawi or the Media Council of Malawi, which are mandated to guard against violations against media freedom and professional ethics, respectively.

Contact and dialogue are, in our view, the proper channels of addressing differences, rather than issuing threats, especially in this age. Freedom of expression and the right to report and publish freely is enshrined in the Constitution, which the president is supposed to protect. The Head of State should therefore not be seen to be in the forefront in violating the Constitution by denying members of the public, including the media, the freedom to report and publish.

MISA-Malawi is therefore appealing to the current administration to champion media freedom in Malawi and to regard the media as partners in development. Likewise, we would like to appeal to media practitioners to continue supporting the development agenda of the current administration, while at the same time keeping watch and alerting authorities when something goes wrong.

Lastly, MISA-Malawi commends the government for taking note of the appeal to change its stand on advertising in some private media outlets such as the Nation Publications Limited (NPL). We have noted that some government departments and institutions that had stopped advertising with NPL have resumed doing so, albeit on a small scale. We encourage the government to start advertising in NPL newspapers on a full scale. Advertising is the lifeblood of the private media and we strongly support this initiative. We appeal to the government to continue supporting NPL and all private media outlets.

Signed,
Aubrey Chikungwa, MISA-Malawi National Director
Brian Ligomeka, MISA-Malawi Chairperson

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