Tag Archives: Press Freedom

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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.

World Press Freedom Day event reveals media freedom in Malawi has a new landscape

Media freedom in Malawi has been commonly deplored, but amidst the political transition that brought Malawi its first female head of state last month, Her Excellency Joyce Banda, media freedom is beginning to take an unfettered shape.

The topic was denounced at a UNESCO funded event held by the Media Institute of Southern Africa (MISA) Malawi chapter in Blantyre last week, in commemoration of World Press Freedom Day on May 3rd.

The event was titled “Media Freedom and Freedom of Expression in Malawi: The Role of Human Rights Defenders in Promoting the Rule of Law and Constitution in Malawi,” and a debate ensued as NGO workers, journalists, academics, and government officials who sat on a panel discussed the topic.

“The defence of human rights is about informing people on time, about surveillance…. it is about evaluating the performance of all authorities responsible for our social welfare… and it is also about the most important thing which is advocacy” said Emmanuel Kondowe, acting deputy executive secretary for Malawi National Commission for UNESCO, as he asserted that true and accurate information is only possible through free media.

Kondowe futher expressed that the media is at the forefront of defending the aspirations of Malawians, defining the media’s role as “drawing attention to human rights infractions.”

“[The media] has the power to reach out to the masses and influence opinion, as well as foster change,” said Edith Kambalame, the features editor at The Nation.

Kambalame also introduced the view that change can also be fostered on an individual level as “every Malawian is a human rights defender” and the other panelists unanimously agreed.

“We have the right to defend our own rights apart from somebody else defending for us” said Margareth Ali, vice chairperson of Human Rights Consultative Committee.

Media freedom in the past fell privy to scrutinization as panelists and audience members alike reviewed the media landscape that existed under the power of past president Bingu wa Mutharika’s regime.

“The new government is only a few weeks old, but with the previous one, we were facing many difficulties” said Ali, referring to organizations that were condemned for helping the media.

“Again, events in our recent past attest to this. Journalists have been attacked by their fellow citizens and not least by some sectors of society who are charged with protecting the sanctity of life including the lives of journalists,” said Kondowe in reference to the harassment journalists have faced.

In response, George Pemba, Regional Information Officer for the South, spoke on behalf of the government in order to proclaim change.“You may agree with me that the human rights defenders including the media were not free enough to express themselves or disseminate information,

“[Now,] the freedom is there and present, particularly with the coming in of this new government. You may recall when the new Minister of Information was being sworn in, the head of state indicated that what she would want to see and hear is the truth and only the truth that has to be given out to the public.

“This is an indication that government is more than ready to make sure that human rights, especially media freedoms and freedom of expression are upheld in this country.”

Francis Chikunkhuzeni, lecturer of  Mass Media and Society at Polytechnic, sent a message to all journalists and human rights defenders in regards to a way forward.

“We should be very optimistic, but cautiously optimistic because change is usually gradual. We are not going to reinvent our practices overnight.”

Free Speech Silenced at Ghanaian Radio Station

During my four years of involvement with Carleton University’s jhr chapter, I participated in the annual Speak Silence campaign, a week during which jhr members take a vow of silence as a gesture of solidarity with journalists in other countries who have been silenced – either by editors or government institutions – for speaking the truth on human rights abuses.  It was always quite harmless and a bit of fun; we’d go down to Byward Market, put duct tape over our mouths, and collect people’s spare change to go towards jhr.  However, I never really connected with what it meant to be silenced, to have the main tool of my journalistic career, my voice, stripped from me.  I was standing in solidarity, but really, I was just standing.

Not anymore.

Recently, Muftaw Mohammed, my mentor here at Kapital Radio, had his voice stripped from him.  He had made some remarks on Kapital’s morning show regarding recent controversial decongestion actions taken by the Kumasi Metropolitan Assembly (Kumasi city hall, as it were.)  He is now no longer allowed on air, and his popular Saturday human rights show, “Know Your Rights” (which Leah and I help produce,) has been taken off the air until further notice.

This came as a shock to me.  Ghana ranks 26th in the world for press freedom, closely behind Canada at 21st.  It is the second highest African nation in the rankings, trailing only Namibia, which is tied with Canada at 21st.  I decided to give Muftaw a voice, albeit small, on my jhr blog.  Here’s a portion of our interview.

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C: Why do you think the Kumasi Metropolitan Assembly (KMA) wants you off the air?

M: I have for some time now, as a human rights activist, been advocating for public interest, public safety, [and] public security to be protected and safeguarded by people in authority.  Unfortunately, these positions of mine, because of the passion with which I articulate them, have been misinterpreted to mean an attempt to make the government unpopular.

C: So this is a political issue.

M: All over the world, it is common knowledge that journalists always have their political interests…but professional integrity tells you not to disclose that affiliation to the public.  I have my political affiliation… I have never made this opinion public on air. My political affiliation…should not make me a bad journalist to say [something] is black when it is white.

C: But the authorities don’t agree with you.

M: Every morning on my morning show, I ask rhetorical questions if the authorities are doing what they should be doing. Sadly, people in authority see me as security threat.

C: What measures have they taken to keep you off the air?

M: There are some things that I can’t tell you to protect the integrity of others involved, but national security, I am reliably informed, is monitoring and tapping into my phone calls… I speak on the phone and I hear both ends of the calls re-echoing, a clear signal that my phone is being tapped.  I want to report this matter to the police, but unfortunately, these are two separate monitoring bodies.  I depend on God for my personal safety.

C: Do you think you have done anything wrong?

M: Yes, I have accomplished the role of the journalist in Ghana here. [Laughs]

C: Is the press free in Ghana?

M: There is this mantra, I find it a cliché: the media is a fourth estate of the realm.  But I see the media under attack.  If you say we are the fourth estate and we are practicing democracy, but freedom of speech is the oxygen of democracy and you will not allow freedom of speech to thrive, then you are saying, “We are throwing democracy to the dogs.” This flies in the face of democracy, it flies in the face of the rule of law.

If we live in a country where the world at large claims that we are a beacon of democracy and the other African countries are looking up to us as a model, I want the world to review this position of Ghana as a beacon of democracy because if one cannot speak freely, if one cannot attempt to correct the ills of society freely and independently without having the security trailing that person, we live in a society of fear and panic, not of freedom.

C: Is the state of affairs improving though?

M: Things are not moving.  If I should speak radically, we are regressing.

C: How do you think things can be changed?  How can Ghana progress towards a total free press?

M: It’s very difficult.  It’s very, very difficult.  Whether you like it or not, politicians are investing in the media, directly or indirectly.  Politicians own the radio stations or they own the people who own the radio stations.  Or they own the people who speak on air. Until we have political hands off the media, the status quo will persist.

Muftaw Mohammed, host of "Know Your Rights", has been pulled off-air indefinitely

C: Will you accept being silenced or will you fight this?

M: I am not giving in, but I am playing it wisely.  We live in an unfortunate society where just a phone call can render you jobless.  In an attempt to protect my job, in at attempt to secure my family, I have to surrender, even though it is not my wish to keep quiet.  If I have a platform on a different network to speak on such issues, I will not hesitate to speak.  I remain unrepentant.

C: What motivates you to keep fighting?

M: I will have failed society if I failed to report human rights abuses…I am largely known in most circles as the last man standing.  Where people dare not go, I go.  What people dare not say, I say in the blink of an eye.  So I am seen largely as a threat by people who have skeletons in their cupboards.  They know I will talk.  So let us silence him, let us intimidate him, let us put fear in him but I remain unfazed, I will not be quiet.

I know that one day, the judge of all judges, the almighty God will judge between me and the authorities.