Tuesday morning began like any other day. All of the reporters were gathered in Capital FM’s barebones newsroom discussing the top stories of the day, when a colleague of mine directed my attention towards his laptop. Slightly annoyed by the interruption, but curious at the same time, I obliged to his request.
With a mischievous grin plastered across his face, it immediately became apparent that I wouldn’t be disappointed by the information he wished to share with me. There, in big bold letters displayed on the popular online publication known as the Nyasa Times, was this headline: “Minister storms out of radio interview.”
Ironically, the government official who stormed out after 21 minutes into his one-on-one interview, was none other than the new Minister of Information and Civic Education, Mr. Symon Vuwa Kaunda.
The government spokesperson was being interviewed by my colleague, Brian Banda, for his half hour analytical program Straight Talk on Capital FM. According to Banda, Kaunda became enraged when he started citing examples of biased reporting on MBC-TV, Malawi’s public television station, which recently merged with the state radio station.
“He was aware that I was asking him for a full interview of 30 minutes,” says Banda. “And when I began to probe him on how the public radio, especially the public media was handling the country’s issues [like the changes to the national flag and political endorsements of family members by the President], he had problems with that.”
More specifically, Banda grilled the minister on how the government-owned media is showing signs of biased reporting in favour of the ruling party. He cited a recent example in which the director of the state-run radio station publicly endorsed the brother of the current president for the 2014 Presidential elections on national television.
“I was asking [the minister] if it was proper for a chief executive of a public radio station to do this type of thing when it is run on tax payers money,” Banda explains. “[Kaunda] said he was not aware of these things and I knew he was lying because as the minister responsible [for information] and somebody who is in Malawi, he’s seeing how the public media is handling issues and the debate of the president’s brother succeeding him in 2014.”
Evasiveness by government officials and consistent unwillingness to comment on tough issues plagues all facets of Malawian society. On August 10, 2010, The Daily Times reported that President Bingu wa Mutharika fired four key ministers and “assigned the First Lady Callitsa to the portfolio of Maternal, Infant and Child Health (Safe Motherhood)” to the cabinet.
Malawian citizens were outraged about this appointment, as they saw this particular cabinet shuffle as just another way the President could control the political landscape. According to my colleagues, immediate family members of past presidents acted more as figureheads, rather than key political players.
For whatever reason, it appears the Malawian public has been left in the dark pertaining to the rationale behind government decisions. Hence, it is troublesome to find the one person elusive, whose main role is
to disseminate information and make sure that the government remains completely transparent to the public.
Most people understand that “the Minister of Information is first of all, the mouthpiece of government,” says Banda. “If any journalist, if any media house wants to get facts as far as the whole government is concerned, the Minister of Information is suppose to give answers.”
So what good is it to have an Access to Information Bill tabled by the Parliament of Malawi, which outlines one of its roles as “promot[ing] transparency and accountability of public officers,” when it clearly exists as a guideline for those in power. What, or shall I say who, is preventing this act from becoming law?
“[Kaunda] said I was difficult, that I was asking tough questions and he just left me there,” says Banda. “What kind of government do we have when the minister who is suppose to give details and facts to media, fails to do so?”
Unfortunately, sometimes Straight Talk doesn’t always produce straight answers.