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Presidents should not sue journalists, media

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Media reports over the weekend indicate that President Arthur Peter Mutharika has sued the Nyasatimes online news outlet over a story the site is said to have published in June about the president’s alleged involvement in the so called K92 billion fraud in government.

While the media has a responsibility to be factual, fair and balanced in their reporting about any individual or organisation, including the state president, it becomes morally and politically incorrect for the head of state to resort to courts and law enforcement agencies with cases against the media.

It is regrettable when the distinguished office of the president gets dragged into lawsuits against journalists and private citizens.

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Apart from the media, there are millions more people and hundreds of opposition party and civil society figures who are sworn critics of the president and will always make allegations against him, with or without substantiation.

With social networks readily and easily available for citizens to publish their views and pieces of news, there are now increased chances of some people making wild and defamatory allegations against politicians, more especially the president.

Imagine if the president were to sue every media story or social network posting that he believes defamed him, all the courts will be full of cases of the president against his own people.

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However, with all the urgent problems Malawi is facing, the president should not waste time by breaking from his important duties to start persecuting journalists and other citizens writing bad about him in the media.

Instead, the president should consider media criticism as a way of measuring public views and perception about his leadership and other issues affecting the country.

Being somebody who is surrounded by paid aides and party loyalists who may not always tell him the truth, the media – including social media and other online news sites, is one key window through which the president can get to know about what is happening in the country and what people are saying on matters of national interest.

Thwarting such outlets with law suits would just scare away writers and deny the president crucial pieces of information that may have helped him understand some things happening in the country and find appropriate ways of addressing them.

Lawsuits to journalists from the head of state not only send a frightening message with regard to freedom of expression and freedom of the press, but are also a form injustice in that under presidential immunity, the president cannot be sued.

While the president may legally sue when wronged, citizens on the other hand cannot drag the president to court. Why should somebody who cannot be sued then have the audacity to sue?

Presidents, therefore, shouldn’t be suing journalists or indeed other citizens, especially for defamation. One is in a position of power, while the other has a job to hold those in power accountable. As active public figures, heads of state must always accept public scrutiny.

Lawsuits against journalists can also backfire because they attract more public attention to the issues under dispute. The president, as the most powerful citizen in the country, should therefore desist from taking criticisms with vengeance.

The office of the president is a public office. Any occupant of that position should be prepared to accept both reasonable and unreasonable criticism.

President Peter Mutharika may wish to borrow a leaf from his own brother late Bingu wa Mutharika. The media gave him extreme negative publicity because of the economic and political challenges that prevailed in the country and resulted into loss of lives in July 2011.

Bingu found other ways of challenging the media but he never sued any media house or journalist for defamation.

Being such a powerful office, the president should expect a lot of things to be written and aired against him. Instead of fighting back through courts or other means, the president should instead build a closer friendly relationship with the private media, which is arguably the most trusted by citizens, rather than antagonising it.

The priceless advice to any citizen who occupies the office of president of this country is that they should always expect citizens to hold them accountable for their use of public funds through writings in conventional or new media.

Instead of wasting time protecting private interests, the president should dedicate his time and energies to fulfilling his constitutional mandate which he asked for and was provided to him by the people of Malawi in May 2014. #ThumbsDown to President Peter Mutharika for the lawsuit against Nyasatimes.

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