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Malawi observes Press Freedom Day amid insult laws, government wrath

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Malawian journalists and ordinary citizens continue to face serious threats on freedom of the media and expression as the government continues to keep insult laws in the country’s statutes that contradict both the country’s Constitution and international agreements.

And while the administration of President Peter Mutharika may be credited for not arresting journalists or subjecting them to physical attacks by the police or ruling party agents during the three years they have been in power, there is ample evidence to prove that the current government is hostile to and aggressive towards the media.

In addition to verbal attacks and general antagonism towards the media through public remarks by the President and written statements from the Ministry of Information, the Mutharika government has also started using the Malawi Communications Regulatory Authority (Macra) and the Malawi Revenue Authority (MRA) to intimidate the media and suppress press freedom.

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In December 2016, Macra questionably fined Zodiak Broadcasting Station (ZBS) K930,000 for airing remarks against the ruling party uttered by opposition People’s Party (PP) third Vice President for the North Kamlepo Kalua.

In January 13 this year, MRA pounced on Times Group offices in Blantyre and closed their premises over what they called “unpaid” taxes at the time the media group was at the centre of a series of earth-shaking stories on the irregularities in the purchase of maize by the Malawi government from Zambia.

The closure of Times Group came less than a week after the Agricultural Development and Marketing Corporation (Admarc) sought an injunction restraining the media outlet from publishing stories on the ‘maizegate’. It had to take an intervention of the High Court for the media group’s offices to be re-opened.

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These developments come at a time Mutharika’s government continues to resist calls from the media and other stakeholders to repeal insult laws such as criminal defamation offences in the country’s statutes that are contradictory to the Republican Constitution while posing threats to media freedom and freedom of expression among citizens in the country.

During his campaign prior to the May 2014 tripartite elections, President Mutharika made several progressive promises on media freedom, including a commitment to sign the Table Mountain Declaration – an international instrument that seeks African heads of state’s undertaking to repeal all laws that infringe on media freedom in their respective countries.

Despite asking for and being served with a copy of the Table Mountain Declaration just a few months after ascending into the presidency in 2014, Mutharika has kept quiet on the issue and there are no signs that he would live up to his promises and indeed stakeholders’ expectations on the matter.

While Malawi has now joined 18 African countries with the enactment of the Access to Information (ATI) law this year, credit has to go to opposition Members of Parliament (MPs) led by the Media and Communications Committee in the august House who heroically thwarted the government’s attempts to water down and alter the bill prior to its approval.

President Mutharika should, however, be commended for finally demonstrating sound leadership as he assented to the bill without further drama, contrary to his earlier threats that he would veto it should the MPs go against controversial provisions implanted by his cabinet in the draft bill. In the end, the ATI Act as approved by Parliament and endorsed by the President is an acceptable piece of law that will go a long way in guaranteeing access to important information to the people of Malawi once implemented.

Expectations are now high among various stakeholders that implementation of the ATI law will start by the beginning of the next government financial year on July 1, 2017 with allocations of required resources at the Malawi Human Rights Commission and other government departments for the setting up of appropriate systems and recruitment of personnel that will allow Malawians to start accessing information from various public offices.

There is also need for the Ministry of Information and other stakeholders such as Misa-Malawi to carry out widespread civic education campaigns aimed at sensitising Malawians to the existence of the law and how they can use it in the exercise of their various rights.

In addition to the landmark ATI law, the Malawi government has also recently enacted the reviewed Communications Act as well as the pacesetting Electronic Transactions Act.

The new Communications Act is expected to bring some level of independence at the Malawi Broadcasting Corporation (MBC) following breakthrough changes in provisions for the appointment of the board for the national broadcaster. Under the revised law, presidential powers in the appointment of board members and management at MBC have been significantly reduced.

Appointed board members at MBC now have to go through vetting by Public Appointments Committee of Parliament unlike in the past when this was a unilateral decision of the President.

The new appointment procedures of the board at MBC are expected to bring a level of independence at the public broadcaster as the tenure of both board and management have now been insulated from political interference with the board members now answerable to Parliament and the public unlike in the past when they had to dance to the whims of the government.

A board appointed in the matter is expected to take full charge in appointment of the Director General and other senior personal at MBC unlike previously when the board was overpowered and made to rubber-stamp decisions of the president.

Another milestone is the successful enactment of an acceptable Electronic Transactions Act for the regulation of, among other things, the online and social media.

The original bill as drafted by the government had provisions that threatened media freedom and freedom of expression. Following successful lobbying by Misa-Malawi, the dangerous provisions were cleared in the draft law and Malawi now has a piece of legislation that will regulate the online media in an acceptable way to protect members of the public from abuse by making online publishers answerable to the law for their actions. Using the Act, abusive and defamatory articles in the online and social media will now be subject to legal action.

The Malawi Chapter of the Media Institute of Southern Africa (Misa-Malawi) will this year once again lead the Malawi media in celebrating World Press Freedom Day at Bingu International Conference Centre and Riverside Hotel in Lilongwe on Saturday, May 6 2017 under the theme ‘Critical Minds for Critical Times: Media’s Role in Advancing Peaceful, Just and Inclusive Societies’.

The theme aims at drawing attention to the importance of a free and independent media in promoting just, peaceful and inclusive societies. This is an important theme considering challenges facing the right to free speech in Malawi.

Misa-Malawi believes that the 2017 celebrations will create a platform to discuss the status of freedom of expression in the country. Stakeholders will have space and the opportunity to reflect on developments around media freedom and freedom of expression and agree on a best course of action to ensure that fundamental constitutional principles and provisions are always safeguarded for the benefit of our democracy and citizens.

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