Malawi has made some progress in instituting policies favourable to media operations, but “over a dozen archaic, anti-press” laws and cases of intimidation continue to frustrate the country’s efforts to promote media freedom, according to the latest report on media freedom in Southern Africa.
A Media Institute of Southern Africa (Misa) report titled ‘So This is Democracy?: State of Media Freedom in Southern Africa 2014’ cites Cabinet’s adoption of the Access to Information Policy on January 27, 2014, Malawi Electoral Commission’s inclusion of presidential debates in the country’s electoral calendar, and President Peter Mutharika’s barring of party supporters from patronising presidential press conferences as some of the positive strides made in the media landscape.
It also lauds the media for playing a key role of informing citizens in last year’s tripartite elections, further observing that even though public media such as the Malawi Broadcasting Corporation continued to favour the then ruling People’s Party (PP) during the campaign period, “the broadcaster moved away from issuing pure propaganda for the ruling party to providing a platform for critical debate and dialogue on matters of national interest”.
It also cites the growth of the broadcasting industry, which has seen players increase from one radio outlet in the early 1990s to 78 outlets. Of the 78, 26 are yet to start operating, according to the report.
However, the report observes that the country did not experience any new media outlets joining the bandwagon last year and that, instead, it were cases of intimidation and threats directed at media practitioners that increased.
“Misa Malawi, for example, had information that reporters deemed critical of the (PP) administration were receiving calls from ‘high places’ cautioning them against writing unpatriotic stories about the [Joyce] Banda administration. In February 2014, then presidential press secretary Steven Nhlane is said to have warned Malawi News Agency journalist Grace Kapatuka for commenting on the controversial sale of a presidential jet. Nhlane warned Kapatuka to resign instead of ‘degrading’ president Banda,” reads the report in part.
There port also observes that media practitioners experienced the perpetuation of the practice where presidential press conferences, “which are usually party rallies rather than a platform for engagement between the media and the president”, are patronised by ruling party supporters. It says, however, that the trend was reversed when Mutharika spoke against the practice.
It then punches holes into the country’s failure to scrape off laws that suppress media freedoms.
“As stated in past reports on Malawi media, over a dozen archaic, anti-press laws still remain on the country’s statute books— in sharp contradiction with the post-single-party Republican Constitution, which clearly provide [sic] for media freedom, freedom of expression and access to information,” adds the report.
Some of the laws deemed anti-press freedom are the Official Secrets Act of 1913, the Printed Publications Act of 1947, the Censorship and Control of Entertainments Act of 1968 and the Protected Flags, Emblems and Names Act— which still quotes fines in Pound Sterling as opposed to the Malawi Kwacha.
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