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The Daily Times newsroom.

The future of press freedom in Malawi

Joyce Banda was sworn in as Malawi’s newest president on April 7 under the terms of the constitution, following two days of political uncertainty after the sudden death of the late Bingu wa Mutharika.

Having won national and international recognition for championing the education and rights of underprivileged girls, Banda’s ascension to the state house has raised hopes for a fresh start for the impoverished nation.

But in a place where a two-day national news blackout left Malawian media scrambling to ascertain the fate of the late head of state, what can be said for the future of press freedom under the new leader?

According to Daniel Nyirenda, deputy editor of The Daily Times and editor of The Business Times, it will take more than a transition of power to translate into improved media freedom.

“We are at a period now where there has been a suppression of media freedoms,” said Nyirenda, citing “bad laws” for press freedom that were enacted during Mutharika’s second term of office.

“We’ve also seen threats from the executive arm of government on the media and the banning of advertising to media that is unfriendly to government,” Nyirenda added.  “Reporters or even newspapers are afraid to publish certain stories for fear of getting a backlash from the executive arm of government.”

When asked if rights media might improve now that the executive arm of government is under Banda’s new leadership, Nyirenda said he is unsure.

“In my view, I think much won’t change because it’s the same people really, just wearing new clothes.  In Malawi, we have people who believe in controlling the media…so much won’t change.

“But, I’m hopeful that now that (Banda) has tasted life in the opposition she has learnt a lesson and she might be more flexible in the way she handles the media.”

Based on comments from The Daily Times’ current chief reporter, Charles Mpaka, Nyirenda’s hope may stand to come true.

While Mpaka said that colleagues working longer in the industry have testified that Banda was averse to criticism from the media and personally attacked journalists when serving as a minister, he added that after she was ousted from the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) in December 2010 and started her opposition People’s Party, “she was reachable on her phones and willing to talk all the times that (he) phoned her.”

However, he added, the interviews were on issues serving her interests.

“From the experience that I have had with Malawian politicians, I would not rush to conclude that things will get easier for the media.  Politicians do change when they get the power and influence.”

When asked what needs to change to usher in a new “normal” for press freedom in Malawi, Nyirenda said that it’s not the people that need to change but the system.

“We still have a hangover of one-party dictatorship in our laws,” said Nyirenda.  “We also need to change MBC (Malawi Broadcasting Corporation) from a state-controlled institution to a public institution.

“We need to reviews these things – then there will be adequate press freedom in this country.”

This article was originally published on the Toronto Star website on May 4, 2012.

Malawian protesters wanted their say – and didn’t get it

A protester shows his solidarity by wearing red in downtown Blantyre, where peace reigned the streets in the morning. Photo by Travis Lupick.

Two weeks ago in Malawi, country-wide demonstrations deteriorated from peaceful celebrations to chaotic street battles. There were riots, the military opened fire, and people were killed –19 as of July 27.

That’s the story that has been broadcast around the world – and for many North Americans, it might be the first news to have ever reached their ears from the poor Sub-Saharan country.

But amid broken windows, gunshots, and thick plumes of teargas, important issues were lost.

Late in the afternoon of July 20, after a very long and hectic day covering the largest demonstrations to take place in Malawi since the fall of the long-ruling Hastings Kamuzu Banda, a group of reporters and I were asked, ‘What’s the story today? What can we say that the other newspapers will not?’

“We cannot go through this again,” one older journalist shouted. “We already saw people die for democracy once.”

“It has to be the violence, the police brutality,” another colleague offered.

And then a third suggestion gave the group reason to pause: “Today was supposed to be about civil society having its say,” the youngest reporter there said. “Now, all anybody will hear is the violence.”

The narrative that emerged from the discussion that followed goes something like this:

Malawi’s July 20 demonstrations were led by prominent civil society leaders who helped plan the protest more than two months in advance. In Blantyre, gatherings were highly-organized, with dozens of clearly-marked volunteers effectively keeping crowds within designated areas and separated from police and military personal.

For the majority of the day, the atmosphere was completely peaceful, with those citizens who showed up eagerly discussing exactly why they were in the streets, and what they wanted to see change to improve their country.

These demonstrations were called out of concern for an increasingly-autocratic leader’s mishandling of the economy and poor governance. In recent months, President Bingu wa Mutharika has seen laws passed that overly-regulate people’s freedom of assembly, give the government power to ban certain news publications, and restricted citizens’ powers to temper government action.

And while such draconian legislation repeatedly sailed through the DPP-majority parliament, Malawi’s economy crumbled. A lack of foreign currency has resulted in chronic fuel shortages that have sent commodity prices soaring. When fuel is available, queues that can last for hours quickly form around whichever filling stations are open for business. Power blackouts are a now a near-daily occurrence. And especially in rural areas, water is increasingly in short supply.

Those are the topics that thousands of Malawians across the country made clear they wanted to discuss. The people wished for a despondent government to hear their voices, feel their dissatisfaction, and act to improve the direction of the nation.

But the morning after July 20, the everyday challenges of life in Malawi were not what people were talking about. A last-minute injunction against civil society’s demonstrations left protestors waiting for word from the courts until their collective patience reached a breaking point. Masses of people who for hours had danced and sang for democracy were slowly infiltrated by a frustrated mob mentality. And when authorities saw an opportunity to deploy force in order to end the demonstrators’ day in the streets, they were quick to seize on it.

As everybody now knows, fires were set, windows were broken, and the police and military opened fire with live ammunition and stinging teargas. It was ensured that it would not be electricity and water shortages that people would continue talking about, but raucous youth and trigger-happy police.

In the newsroom, a conclusion emerged from the tired group of journalists:

President Bingu wa Mutharika never intended to listen to the thousands of people who danced in the streets on July 20, and with the police and military contributing to a situation that successfully shifted the conversation to the afternoon’s violence, the President placed himself in a position where he does not have to.

You can follow Travis Lupick on Twitter at twitter.com/tlupick.