Malawi dancing towards dictatorship again

Date: February 27, 2011
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“Bingu Okays newspaper ban law” screamed newspaper headlines a day after the Republic of Malawi’s president signed a repressive media law.

To me this was not only shocking but an intimidation and a threat to my journalism profession.

I grieve also because the law just came into power a month after I had completed my journalism degree. What a cold welcome I received into the industry.

However, fear grips me that someday I could be a cause of a newspaper closure. And since defamation laws are still intact as well, I fear that someday I will end my career in prison because of reporting what will not amuse the Information Minister. These laws have left me with no option since the electronic media is already under government control through an “independent” regulatory body: Malawi Communications Authority (Macra).

But how and why did all this come to be in a democratic state?

The Malawi National Assembly amended Section 46 of its Penal Code and made it into a new law in November 2010. The statute now reads “if the minister has reasonable grounds to believe that the publication or importation of any publication would be contrary to the public interest, he may, by order published in the Gazette, prohibit the publication or importation of such publication.” Initially, the Penal Code empowered the information minister “to prohibit the importation of any seditious materials.”

However, what puzzles me now is who defines the “public interest”: Media professional conduct and ethics or the Information Minister? Your guess is as good as mine how political interests will abuse this piece of legislation.
Ironically, the amendment came a few months after President Mutharika sounded a warning to close any newspaper that publishes stories “to water down” his government. The Malawi leader accused a newspaper of publishing a story which allegedly reported that one million Malawians would face food shortages.

The story quoted a Southern African Development Community (SADC) food security update report that warned of looming hunger problems.

But despite numerous local and international humanitarian appeals not to approve the law, Mutharika, the former chairperson of African Union (AU), persisted and assented it.

Surprisingly, the law contradicts Section 36 of the republican constitution, which says “the press shall have the freedom to report and publish freely, within Malawi and abroad and to be accorded the fullest possible facilities for access to public information.”

This development is shocking, pathetic and a retrogression considering that Malawi is now 16 years old from the day it adopted multiparty democracy. While everyone expected this young democracy to be making positive strides, the story seems to be different.

Malawi under Mutharika has been marred with constitutional amendments which are bringing in more autocratic statutes.

Local political and law experts have questioned these amendments and Blessings Chisinga, a renowned political analyst, has described them as “a strategic movement towards 2014 [presidential and parliamentary] elections.”
According to Chisinga, the signing of the new law further thwarts the ratification of Access to Information Bill which has been gathering dust at Capitol Hill since it was first drafted in 2003. The bill, if enacted, would help journalists to easily access information.

Issuing a statement on the development, The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), an organisation that defends journalists worldwide, stated that “the ability of a single political appointee to decide what newspapers, local or foreign, citizens read is against the public interest and is an assault on Malawi’s constitutional guarantee of press freedom.”
Freedom of expression is a paramount tenet of democracy and what the Malawi leader has done is to spit in the face of all Malawians who fearlessly fought the autocratic rule to bring about democracy in the 1993-1994 revolution.

But what happens when countries bring new laws that contravene international treaties, declarations and protocols to which they are signatories?

Malawi, like most SADC members, has signed regional and global accords which guarantee media freedom. The reality on the ground seems to be different.

The Windhoek Declaration on Press Freedom, which this year turns 20, Article 19 of the SADC Protocol (2000) and the Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights, are among the agreements which guarantee media freedom – but they all seem to be toothless.

According to the Media Institute of Southern Africa (MISA): “the continued use of laws such as the Official Secrets Act and penal codes to arrest and charge journalists remains a serious cause of concern throughout the [SADC] region notably in Swaziland, Zimbabwe and Zambia.”

For democracy to thrive, the media has to be free to inform and educate citizens so that they make informed choices. However, it is quite pathetic that, according to Freedom House, of 15 SADC members, only two, Namibia and South Africa, have a free media.

Guy Berger, a professor at South African Rhodes University, says lack of political will is one major cause of lack of media freedom in the region. It is imperative upon media practitioners in the region to come up with measures to put pressure on politicians to enact media-friendly laws and policies. MISA holds the key to this.

Berger further notes that member states need to be reminded of their international commitments and obligations. MISA must shoulder this responsibility as well. Positive results may occur if MISA takes a leading role in seeking legal redress on matters affecting the media.

When repressive media policies are put in place, innocent citizens suffer the most.

Meanwhile, due to these repressive media laws and a poor human rights record, the United States and German governments have threatened to withdraw much-needed financial support that could have changed the lives of many Malawians.

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