A couple of days ago, on May 03, we joined the global community in commemorating the World Press Freedom day. This day was instituted by the United Nations as a constant reminder to all member states of the United Nations of the importance of the freedom of the Press. But press freedom must be understood correctly, broadly and thoroughly if we must exercise and safeguard this freedom in its strictest democratic sense within our infant and stagnating democracies across Africa in general and Malawi specifically.
Just like most countries, we tend to define press freedom as the protection of the rights and freedom of journalists, broadcasters and news publishers to do their journalistic work without political harassment and influence. This is a partial definition or simply a wrong one. We think so much about press freedom in terms of protection of journalists from arrests. That is why every time government tries to justify itself on preservation of press freedom they always say, “We have not arrested any journalists.”
As a result, we have bred and nurtured a very sad culture where journalists, broadcasters, and news publishers are always too quick to whine against government’s violation of press freedom even when there is no violation at all. Every time a journalist is arrested MISA Malawi and company comes in and issue a predictable statement saying, “We condemn government for the arrest of the journalist….we demand his or her quick release, we caution government against such violation of freedom of the press…”
But this culture and tradition is chocking the democratization process and progress because we surrender undue powers and some immunity to journalists which the press in developing democracy cannot handle. The entire press freedom thing is just too sacred in the absence of well trained, ethical and highly professional journalists in countries still haunted by a century of colonialism and dictatorship like Malawi.
The media in a democratic dispensation has at least three basic functions. The first one is to inform and educate the general public. To effectively perform this function, journalists and the entire press must circulate accurate and unbiased information in the public domain so that people are not misinformed and poorly educated on civic matters. The second function is advocacy, where the media partners with government and the general public to push for agenda deemed in the best interest of the public.
For example, in the prevailing likely ethnic cleansing of albinos, the media can partner with government and NGOs to advocate for the safeguard of the right to life of albinos, condemn ritualistic beliefs behind the massacres and advocate for arrests and maximum sentencing of culprits perpetrating such crime. And the third one is watchdogging, where journalists and the press must employ intelligence and investigative skills to monitor all government branches, ministries and departments, and companies and the entire private sector, and report to the general public, policy irregularities, suspicious deals, corruption and fraud, and other positive developments deemed in the best interest of the citizenry.
In the regard of such basic functions of the media, we must appreciate that journalists and the press have so much delicate a responsibility which is to keep the heart of democracy beating. A democracy is a government where the ultimate decision-making power is vested in the citizens. And the citizens need accurate, timely and balanced information to make educated decisions.
For instance, citizens can decide to overthrow their leader through mass protests to force him or her out office. But they can only come to this conclusion following what the media has been reporting about the regime which could be true or mere propaganda. Another example is about Elections where citizens choose President and other representatives to the Parliament. The media must give citizens enough, accurate and timely information about all candidates and without bias so that the citizens must elect the right candidates. Otherwise, the electorate might vote for the wrong candidate simply because the media gave the candidate too much coverage.
You can now see that the media is crucial and circulates vital information which can make or break the society. If you recall the “Commission of Inquiry Report” on the July 20, 2011 bloody national demonstrations, which as far as I know is the only report that was done professionally and served its purpose well, you will notice that one of the reasons the July 20 demonstrations got out of control and property and lives got destroyed was because of the unprofessional behaviour of the private and state-owned media.
That is why government must never exercise undue caution, out of fear of provoking the full wrath of the private media, in ensuring that journalists and all players in the press comply with ethical codes, the law and are professional in their work. Government must never hesitate to arrest any journalist or ban any publication or close down any broadcaster that does not conform to legal, professional and democratic values of their profession, because that’s what democracy demands. Press freedom is not a license to unprofessional journalism.
The United Nations declares that “in order to make freedom of expression a reality, there must be” among other conditions, “the necessary media literacy skills among news consumers to critically analyze and synthesize the information they receive to use it in their daily lives and to hold the media accountable for its actions.” It this statement, the UN challenges the citizenry in all member states that they must critically analyze the news they receive from the media and they must hold journalists and news publishers accountable for what they write and report. That’s the correct definition of press freedom.
The same press freedom which gives journalists and news publishers the freedom to report without being harassed, also gives the general public the right and freedom to be told the truth, by ethical and professional journalists.
It is therefore a violation of press freedom which goes unchecked when journalists and news publishers and broadcasters report lies, get biased, or behave unprofessionally. And such behavior by journalists or news publishers must never go without punishment within the legal provisions of the law, or get remedied by bodies that oversee journalists and media practitioners.
Finally, what we see in this country is an impossible situation for the growth of a free press and democracy owing to a legacy that fails to die despite transitions of systems of government in the past 100 years. The government abuse press freedom as much as journalists and the private media operators abuse the same. The press is abused for political expedience between the government and the Opposition and for personal economic gain by journalists, and editors.
Government has since the first colonial newspaper in 1895 abused state-owned press, while since its emergence in the late 1950s, the private media has been influenced by those opposing government. We have failed as a nation even in democracy to outgrow this culture.
And since democracy in 1993 government has never liberated the MBC while the Opposition has always influenced journalists and private media against government. This is where real work of reforming the press must begin from.Follow and Subscribe Nyasa TV :