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Media, Peter Mutharika stand-off: what went wrong?

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Recent events surrounding the stand-off between the media and the presidency can best be described as most worrying and a major concern to well-meaning citizens of this country.

In the past two weeks, over 15 media houses have carried stories or commented on the matter by seeking opinion from commentators and the public.

For starters, is there something really wrong between the state President and the media?

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The state President’s unexplained prolonged stay in the United States where he went to attend the annual United Nations general Assembly (UNGA) sparked a lot of speculation, apprehension and concern by the general populace back home, some of whom shared gossip and opinions through the social media.

Opinions and comments carried by the private media bordered on concern about the extra and unbudgeted expenditure the state President was incurring during his prolonged stay in the US, this considering the country’s present economic situation.

While this debate was going on, rumour also started to circulate that the President had been taken ill, hence his prolonged stay in the US. Some of the rumour mongers went further to say that the President had died and that government was trying to concoct a plausible lie that would help break the news to Malawians.

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The social media, perhaps not quite unexpectedly, exploited the situation to the full and had quite a field day fanning the fire with comments and opinions.

While all this was going on, no one, I repeat, no one in government machinery found it necessary to stop the rumours from spreading further by engaging damage control mechanism. The statement that finally came from the government machinery fell short of being convincing and it came too late to change opinions.

It was clear that the persons that prepared the statements were not good/experienced liars. The statements did not ally the people’s fears, worries and concerns and the media, quite expectedly, punched holes in the statement.

Finally, State House announced that the President was coming back home on October 16, 2016.

Following this announcement, the Media Council of Malawi (MCM) felt it duty-bound to appeal to authorities that were to manage the President’s arrival programme at the airport to ensure that there was adequate security for the media and that reporters should be given space to interact with the President so that through them (media), the nation would hear from the President what made him delay his return home, clear the rumours about his health and answer questions on other burning issues that concerned Malawians while he was away.

MCM took this move after realising that in the past the media did not have enough time to interview presidents on their return from foreign trips and that ruling party supporters and officials got into the way, thereby hindering the press from meaningful engagement with the president.

Where opportunity for press conferences was given, those organising and directing the event gave more time (to ask questions) to reporters from the public media who, understandably so, could not ask controversial or thought-provoking questions.

Simply put, such press conferences simply served as window-dressers because they never brought out substantive issues affecting the nation. MCM also observed that most often reporters from public media houses restricted their questions on issues that were directly related to the President’s trip and engagement.

It was in the view of MCM that such situations denied the people the opportunity to be enlightened by their leader on other critical issues that affected their lives and well-being.

When the President finally arrived, he did not speak to reporters at the airport. However, what made headlines was the President’s unusual use of his left hand to shake hands with those that came to welcome him at the airport. It was clear to everyone that saw the President at the airport and on television that he had lost the ability to use his right hand. This confirmed some of the rumours, speculations and fears people had about the President’s health.

A few days later, State House called for a press conference, a development that came as a huge relief and most welcome by both the media and general citizenry.

During the press conference which was also attended by a large number of government and ruling party officials, the President who jovially entered the room waving both of his hands, pre-emptied the media by telling the gathering that he hand chronic problem of rheumatism which affected his right shoulder and that on the day of his arrival he had just been given a dosage of injection to ease the pain, which ostensibly made him unable to shake hands using the affected arm.

To prove and confirm that he was on the way to full recovery, the President constantly waved his right hand and also held a pen and scribbled notes with the same hand.

The first indication of the President’s unhappiness with some of the media houses came when he did not allow a lady-journalist from Zodiak Broadcasting Services (ZBS) to finish her question, arguing that he had already addressed the substance of her question in his preamble of the press conference.

The State President then went on to disparage ZBS accusing it of being one of the media houses that wrote and broadcast falsehoods about his health. From his tone and facial expression, the President was visibly angry.

This sparked heckles from the government and party officials that sat two rows behind where the reporter was sitting.

From the TV footage, it was visibly clear that the reporter was shaken and afraid, perhaps fearing the worst from those heckling behind her. She was not given opportunity to ask another question by the master of ceremonies nor did the President answer her question.

Later after the press conference, the private media queried about the large presence of party zealots and government officials that had outnumbered the reporters by an estimated ratio of one to 10 at the press conference. The private media complained that the large presence of the government officials and party zealots was intimidating (Malawi is the only known country where members of the public are allowed to sit and mix with reporters at presidential press conferences).

One of the reporters that attended the gathering intimated to MCM later that he was not able to ask two of his five questions because of the intimidating atmosphere which had made him become confused.

A few days later, the President, at a political rally in Mchinji, went to town against Zodiak, The Daily Times and Sunday Times criticising and threatening them for what they had written and aired about him.

In view of these developments, MCM reacted by writing to the Director of Communication at State House asking him to advise the State President to refrain from attacking the media in public as this was viewed as intimidation and attack on media freedom.

MCM took this initiative in keeping with one of its key objectives which is to: “Uphold and maintain the media freedom in Malawi, including the freedom of expression and the public right to freely receive and impart information and opinion, and to defend/protect the media from undue pressure from any source.”

Clearly, the State President’s actions and utterances during these two occasions had violated this objective. Democracy was under threat and the one perpetrating this was no other than the first citizen himself, who by virtue of his office should be the first to defend it.

Anyone that is rebuked in the presence of onlookers or peers becomes resentful and loses respect for the elder that rebuked them.

This was why a few days later key private media houses, perhaps taking cue from MCM, met in Blantyre to discuss these worrying developments from the presidency and how best to deal with similar incidences in future.

The question now to ask is: why did Namisa and Media Council of Malawi get involved in the private media houses discussions and agreement?

Firstly, since the onset of multiparty democracy it is the private media houses that have stood their ground to defend media freedom, freedom of expression and democracy. Public media houses have always defended government and rarely give alternative or opposing views to those of government. This is the reason successive governments have refused to free MBC (Malawi Broadcasting Corporation) from becoming a truly public broadcaster.

So it is private media houses that have become the voice of the people through which the public is able to hear and know things that government does not want them to hear or know. This is the voice both MCM and Namisa are trying to encourage and promote.

In countries where dictatorships thrive, the media is usually wholly owned by government or operated by those sympathetic to government.

MCM and Namisa encourage and uphold diversity of opinion, promotion of press freedom and freedom of expression and both organisations are against a system that tries to muzzle the press through whatever means.

The President’s actions and statements during the two stated occasions are a case in point.

Which brings us to the next question: has the state President the right to complain against the media? By all means he has every right. The courts and established media regulatory bodies are there to assist in this regard. However, what is not acceptable is for him to express his anger and frustration at public rallies or in the presence of charged-up party supporters.

Public attacks against the media by the President have the potential to incite hatred and violence against reporters or media houses by those that are sympathetic to the President.

No matter the situation, an attack on the media by state machinery is an attack on press freedom and democracy and the free world has the tendency to sympathetically listen to the voice of the free media than to governments.

The President must also not forget that is was the free media that helped him win the presidency in 2014 because of its unbiased reporting when MBC was all out campaigning for the incumbent. It was the same MBC that helped Joyce Banda to lose miserably because of its biased reporting.

Finally, how effective or what impact will the Mount Soche Declaration have?

It will be foolhardy for government to decide to dismiss or ignore the decision the private media houses have taken.

In Malawi, records show that there are only two voices that cannot be effectively silenced – the voice of the church and the voice of the free media. Fortunately or unfortunately since 1992, the voices of church and free media have got stronger and louder with each passing year.

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