Speaking at the presidential Breakfast at the state house in Lilongwe, Media Institute for Southern Africa (MISA) Malawi Chairperson, Teresa Ndanga stated about president Chakwera: “Under your leadership we have seen open government, state house has opened its doors where journalists have been able to ask questions, sometimes critical ones,” These are not mere sentiments but words which indicate but the expression of gratitude from the members of the press for the prevailing media freedom in the country. The media has never been freer in Malawi than is now. There has been a departure from the norms of the past where the media was treated with utter contempt and disdain.
Since President Lazarus Chakwera came to power in that historic election, he has set his sights towards liberating the media as a way of meeting his promise of making “A Better Malawi possible”. The first step towards fulfilling that promise was championing the operationalization of the Access to Information bill which was subsequently passed into law. In the past this used to be a campaign tool by the previous government but it never came to pass. Interestingly enough, it took only three months for the Access to Information bill to be passed into law.
The Presidential Breakfast is not only a good gesture to the media but an expression of intent by the Chakwera-led government. History is replete with leaders who loathed the media or they loved it only when it was convenient to them. A story is told of Napoleon, who, when he came to power in France, he suppressed the Press and subjected them to punitive laws characterized by heavy censorship, physical assaults and wanton widespread arrests. He wrote in one of his memoirs: “Four hostile newspapers are more powerful than 1000 bayonets, they are to be feared”. Napoleon banned publications critical to his regime but he sanctioned a few where he used to publish memoirs against his adversaries. He hated the media but understood that he could not do without it.
Similarly, though operating under democracy, most African leaders act like Napoleon. They love the media only when it is convenient to them. Since Malawi gained independence in 1964 no country president has celebrated World Press Freedom Day with members of the Press. Chakwera’s historical 3rd May gesture cannot therefore be taken lightly as it is a clear demonstration that his government is not antagonistic to the idea of free Press and freedom of expression.
There are not many leaders who allowed the media to operate freely without gagging them. Thomas Jefferson, the 3rd president of United States was one of the few leaders recognized to have had a soft spot for the media. A prolific writer himself, Jefferson was persecuted by the same media he loved but his leadership never made life difficult for the Press. Jefferson loved the free Press such that he was understood to have ranked the media higher than government. In one of his publications he wrote: “The basis of our governments being people, the first object should be to keep that right; and were it left to me to decide whether we should have government without newspapers or newspapers without government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.”
Like Jefferson, president Chakwera has had his fair share of brutal reporting by the media but his love for the media is unscathed. The president seems to truly understand Voltaire’s statement, “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say.” This spirit is remotely rare in leaders.
As if that is not enough, the Malawi leader went further in sending a clarion call to all the power holders and all the Malawians to help him in shaping the progressive society where the media, as the marketplace of ideas, are free to write freely and the citizenry being unafraid to enjoy of their freedom of expression. This is why the president spoke passionately and growingly of the need for every Malawian to be the custodian of freedom of the Press and freedom of expression.
“The theme of this years World Press Freedom Day is ‘Journalism Under Digital Siege’ which recognizes the fact that the freedom of the Press and the freedom of expression are in need of defending and preserving now than ever. Our first task relates to our own behaviour as it relates to how we react to someone who exercises these rights. We must each regulate ourselves to ensure ourselves that anytime any journalist publishes something we never react in a manner that infringes on their freedom to do so. This simple principle of self-restraint applies to me, every public official, every agency of the state and every citizen.”
In tying these twin rights, the president fully understands that freedom of expression it is not the prerogative of a politician nor a mere privilege of journalists but that in their day-to-day work, journalists are simply exercising every citizen’s right to speech. Correspondingly, the president also recognizes that a free press is fundamental to a democratic society. He knows that a free press seeks out and circulates news, information, ideas, comment and opinion while at the same time, holding those in authority to account. He also appreciates that the press provides the platform for a multiplicity of voices to be heard and it is a public’s watchdog, activist and guardian as well as educator, entertainer and contemporary chronicler.
Again, the head of state’s call seems to stem from the fact that there may be some overzealous people who may not share his dream of a free media and thus use their power against the media. Such notions are not uncommon in Malawi as there is a belief that those who surround the president often mislead the president. Understandably, there are some misgivings in other agencies of the state who may be reluctant to buy into the president’s idea of a free Press. Here, line Minister, honourable Gospel Kazako also alluded. “We have some stray bullets (overzealous people) here and there but we should never think that that is the thinking of the president. This is a president who believes in journalism, this is the president who believes in communication, this is the president who knows the importance of free media.’’
Understandably, Ndanga was also strongly stated this point: “Your Excellency you are the champion of media freedom, we can’t take that away from you, but at the same time, in this government, in this system there are individuals who are derailing your progress towards ensuring a free Press in Malawi. Those Sir are not your friends, the people that derail progress of your administration are essentially your enemies. You can’t be pronouncing positive rhetoric on public platforms and someone goes around and does the exact opposite. Your Excellency, these need to be checked, if the journalist is being persecuted, harassed arrested yet you Sir promised that we will be operating in a free environment, then let us look at what is wrong within the system. Maybe these are just individuals who do not support your cause.’’
Such frank sentiments clearly show the trust the media places in the president. The Press should therefore get encouragement from the president’s commitment to ensuring a free press by bravery playing their role in building a prosperous, resilient and free Malawi.