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Steps backwards

Between the Lines


Numerous threats are confronting journalists and journalism in present-day Malawi.

Individuals who feel injured by the work of scribes sometimes reach the point of physically attacking them. Then there are those who use State agencies to threaten journalists.

But we vow not to be cowed into submission knowing how crucial our work is in keeping public officers on their toes.

No amount of threat will move us away from doing our job because it is a calling and a service to humanity. Because we have gone through harsh times before and managed to sail through, we will do it again.

The illegal snooping into our conversations by anyone will not even frustrate our work because we know why we ventured into it.

Malignant lawsuits, bent at blocking the truth from coming out, will not even stop us from publishing stories. They will, in fact, embolden us to dig deeper and expose underhand dealings that are frustrating the development of our beloved country.

This year’s World Press Freedom Day theme ‘Journalism under digital siege’ is so relevant in the Malawi context. There is a kind of digital surveillance that State institutions seem to be silently implementing through checking journalists’ conversations with their sources.

Surveillance is evil because it can expose whistle-blowers and violate the principle of source protection in the process.

At the end, media freedom, as a core element of journalism, becomes threatened.

The United Nations states that surveillance has the potential of harming the safety of journalists by disclosing sensitive private information, which could be used for arbitrary judicial harassment or attack.

We saw that happening here in Malawi recently, when investigative journalist Gregory Gondwe was arrested by the police because of publishing a story that some officials did not like. Essentially, that is what stories ought to do.

Stories that are liked by everyone are no more than advertorials that may bring little or no change at all to society.

In Gondwe’s case, there were elements of snooping into his digital conversations. Then the publication that he heads, Platform for Investigative Journalism (PIJ), experienced a cyber-attack just days after the police had confiscated his digital equipment.

While the police vainly attempted to distance themselves from the hacking of PIJ website, it was obviously difficult for well-meaning Malawians to accept their self-exoneration.

Essentially, the work of journalists was supposed to be a plus in terms of government identifying rotten areas that need cleansing.

Investigations that journalists do are supposed to help the work of the police, the Anti-Corruption Bureau and other agencies. Instead, journalists are harassed for doing that.

In fact, there are several stories which the media has unearthed, which would have resulted in authorities taking action on some individuals. They rather choose to turn their attention away.

But even that habit will not dampen our resolve to deliver our mandate to Malawians and the world because that is our core obligation.

We will continue delivering information to citizens so that they can make crucial choices including voting. This is particularly crucial in a democratic dispensation like ours.

Of course, we will always endeavour to deliver information that is accurate, well balanced and transparent, knowing that whatever is published can have lasting implications on lives of individuals.

We are always mindful of our responsibilities and we exercise our freedom to seek and give out information and the public good remains a crucial element in our work.

Every time we commemorate World Press Freedom Day is a moment for government to remember and be reminded about its responsibility to protect and promote press freedom.

Authorities must always remember that an independent press does more good than bad in helping them govern. It identifies areas that need improvement or correction.

Our work in a democratic society is civic. As Justice Hugo Black stated in his opinion in New York Times v. United States, as journalists, we have that sacred obligation to “bare the secrets of government and inform the people”.

We do not work in opposition to government, as some quarters think. We are simply a scrutinising force ensuring that Malawians are served justly and equitably by those they entrust with the responsibility to lead.

Despite that we continue to face threats from those who hate the truth, we will continue spotlighting the most egregious failings of our public servants.

A free and responsible press is essential to the functioning of a free society. It helps in saving taxpayers’ money lost through corruption and other forms of deception.

We will remain servants of the people and we will not be too friendly to the government because doing so will deal a heavy blow to the civic symbiosis that upholds our democracy.

Our plea remains: Allow us to do our work without undue interference and threats.

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