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MISA concerned about growing intolerance of media freedom

(MISA/IFEX) - 9 March 2012 - The Regional Secretariat of the Media Institute of Southern Africa (MISA) notes, with profound distress, the growing intolerance of media freedom and freedom of expression in Malawi. Today, March 9, 2012, we received a statement released by State House Press Officer, Albert Mungomo, and titled: 'Civil Society Organisations and Media Conduct Inciting Anarchy in the Country'.

Ordinarily, a statement such as the one we received today would not warrant this kind of response. Yet, coming as it does from a country that is facing serious democratisation and governance challenges, we would like to express our deepest concern over what we consider serious threats to media freedom and freedom of expression in Malawi. It is also our hope that the government of Malawi, president Bingu wa Mutharika in particular, will be able to consider our point of view on the same issues.

One, we strongly disagree with the suggestion that the media in Malawi are making it their vocation to demean and insult president Mutharika. In a democracy, the media should be concerned with “shaping public opinion, mediating the debate between the state and civil society, but also acting as a watchdog over public process, against private gain. Free media [therefore] are a prerequisite to development in the promotion of democracy, human rights and governments.”

We take the above quotation from a communiqué issued in Lusaka, Zambia, by the 7th Regional Meeting of the African, Pacific and Caribbean-European Union (ACP-EU) Joint Parliamentary Assembly in February 2012, where Malawi was represented. We find it odd, therefore, that the government of Malawi does not share, or indeed, recognize that based on the above, democracy should be about empowering citizens so that they are able to take ownership of their own growth and development objectives, harmonising them with national aspirations after interacting and engaging with differing views. This sacrosanct activity is guaranteed and protected by the Constitution of Malawi and is facilitated, on a daily basis, by the media.

Two, the law that the media are said to be in breach of, an insult law regarding the national flag, emblems and names, is archaic and serves more to provide evidence for the need for critical reform than anything else. That the law still quotes a fine to be paid in Pound Sterling and not in Malawi Kwacha elucidates the fact that this piece of legislation remains stuck in the time warp of colonial and repressive tradition and also proves the urgency with which legal reforms must take place in Malawi, forty-eight years after independence.

Several other laws of this nature and age exist in Malawi; the Official Secrets Act (1913), the Printed Publications Act (1947) and the Censorship and Control of Entertainment Act (1968). Still, there exists also Section 46 of the Penal Code, which empowers the Minister of Information to ban any publication that may be deemed not to be in the public interest, as defined by that minister. Clearly, these laws have no role to play in a democracy and while we are fully aware that some them have been referred to the Law Commission for review, the fact that they still remain active while under review does not inspire confidence, as they may be permanently condemned to the review process.

Three, we are shocked that the government of Malawi is insisting that president Mutharika “has never ordered the arrest” of media practitioners and human rights defenders. This is not the first time that this claim is being made. We are aware of cases where journalists have been threatened at press conferences for “asking the wrong questions”, verbally assaulted and threatened by senior government officials, and had their company vehicles torched, to list but a few incidents. We deeply regret, therefore, to note how this government defines what constitutes a media freedom violation.

The statement also singles out phrases used by leading opinion writers in Malawi to refer to president Mutharika. If that alone – the singling out of these phrases – does not constitute a threat then nothing else does. One of the columnists and BBC Correspondent, Raphael Tenthani, who if famous for using the phrase 'Big Kahuna' to refer to president Mutharika, has told MISA that this phrase is actually respectful. “It means “the Big Boss”. I don't know how it begins to be demeaning to the president. I have met the president several times and we have joked about it for I use it almost every week in my column. But I won't stop using it because doing so would be unwittingly admitting I have been disrespecting my president all these years.”

MISA is aware also that on July 20, 2011, the day of mass demonstrations in Malawi, the Malawi Communications Regulatory Authority (MACRA) ordered all radio stations that were carrying live broadcasts of the lawful demonstrations to stop all live broadcasts. That the statement from State House chooses to ignore this fact by alleging sensational reporting on the part of the radio stations which fell victim to this directive shows, we are afraid, the signs of a government that may not be prepared to hear – and confront – the truth from its people.

Four, our concern also extends to the mention made by the statement regarding social networks. The statement reads: “The State House monitors carefully such networks that are hostile and probably careless in demeaning the state president.” We are extremely worried that the government of Malawi may be conducting some illegal surveillance of Internet use in Malawi based on their faulty perception that social networks are inherently hostile. This, in itself, reveals a profound lack of understanding of what the Internet is and its role in a democracy. We will continue to pay close attention to the tone and language directed at Internet use in Malawi as we believe, based on the statement, that there exists a significant threat to Freedom of Expression in Cyberspace in Malawi.

Lastly, we are of the view that the relationship between the government and the media in Malawi would benefit from a process of mutual engagement. We are most willing to further open room for lasting dialogue between the government and media, in the firm belief that this would provide a more enabling environment for media freedom, freedom of expression and ultimately citizen empowerment.

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