Why Malawi, like all democracies, does’t need Ministry of Information

Thats the whole point of good propaganda. You want to create a slogan that nobodys going to be against, and everybodys going to be for. Nobody knows what it means, because it doesnt mean anything. ~ Noam Chomsky

Last weekend’s Backbencher column in the Weekend Nation – 23rd August 2014, made what I consider a very important case on “why information portfolio is superfluous”. Backbencher’s argument was on the Information Minister, Kondwani Nakhumwa’s meddling in a case in which the Attorney General, Kalekeni Kaphale, publicly stated that there is a law provision that says money should be recovered from civil servants who on behalf of their ministries make mistakes that end in costly litigations.

The Information Minister, perhaps in his capacity as a “government spokesperson” issued a statement to ensure civil servants that President Peter Mutharika’s government had no intention of “operationalising the said law.” Why would the government ignore existing law? Was the law not put in place for a reason?

Minister of Infomation, Kondwani Nankhumwa

Minister of Infomation, Kondwani Nankhumwa

Backbencher insinuates that the Information Minister is playing a political card with what is clearly a government issue. I entirely agree with Backbencher’s conclusion, and I want to discuss further why Malawi, like any democracy does not need Ministry of Information, in any guise or form.

Information department is necessary. Among other things, Malawi News Agency does a great job providing information for both local and international media but information portfolio only exists because it is useful to a governing party, not the government or the state – mind the difference between a ruling party and government.

As Backbencher rightly noted, almost every ministry has a spokesperson these days. The presidency has more than enough press officers and advisors on information to do their bidding. The presidency can pick anyone they want from the cream of Malawi journalism; I doubt anyone would turn it down. But let us discuss the Ministry of Information issue. Some background information first.

Ministry of Information came to prominence during the First World War – the first time that state propaganda played a critical role in international relations. Hitherto the word propaganda had not acquired the negative connotations we know today. And curiously, propaganda has become synonymous with Adolf Hitler’s Nazi Party but it was the British who started the whole thing.

American intellectual and political activist, Noam Chomsky noticed that it was Hitler’s view that German lost the First World War because it lost the propaganda battle. Hitler learned his lessons and this is why the Nazi used propaganda so extensively in the Second World War.

According to Chomsky, Britain was on the verge of losing the First World War so they needed to get U.S. on their side. The U.S. was not initially involved in the war. It was the duty of Britain’s Ministry of Information through propaganda to secure the U.S. support. It is hard to believe it today, but the U.S. was a very pacifist country at the time, so convincing them to join the war was not a minor feat. To quote Chomsky in full:

“The British had Ministry of Information, and they really needed it because they had to get the U.S. into the war or else they were in bad trouble. The Ministry of Information was mainly geared to sending propaganda, including huge fabrications… The Ministry of Information was extremely successful in deluding hotshot American intellectuals into accepting British propaganda fabrications. They were very proud of that. Properly so, it saved their lives. They would have lost the First World War otherwise.”

This was the role of Ministry of Information then, spreading propaganda in the interests of the state, against an enemy. In absence of war, whether in autocratic regimes or democracies this ministry is used to protect the interest of the incumbency against the ruled. Its role is to suppress information; airbrush and sanitise it in order to ensure compliant populace. This is why Ministry of Information is always among the first portfolios to be filled when a new administration comes in, it is necessary for political survival.

Ministry of Information is there to do the bidding for the ruling party, which in Malawi terms also means the government. Take this for an example: The Nation newspaper of 26th August 2014 had a front page story on DPP turning down Zikhale Ng’oma’s attempts to re-join the party. The article opened with this paragraph: “government and the ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) have flatly rejected moves by former People’s Party (PP) campaign director Ken Zikhale Ng’oma to join them.” It is hard in Malawi to separate the governing party and government; even the media get caught up with it, what more an average person?

Within ministries, the information management role is played by public relations officers (PR) or communications officers, for a want of a more positive term. The duty of PR people is to protect the ‘image’ and ‘interests’ of respective departments and ministries. Essentially, this folks are there to guard against what Malawians voted for on 14th June 1993: democracy. Do not be fooled that spokespersons are there to provide information and promote transparency. They are there to sieve information, letting out only what the authorities are happy reveal.

This is primarily the reason why investigative journalism is crucial in democracies because it uncovers information that PR folks, like ministry of information, are there to conceal. PR people’s duty is to “manufacture consent”, as the Godfather of PR, Walter Lippmann called it in 1920s.

Those in power often cite ‘national security’ as a reason to conceal information but this is rarely the case. In most cases it is their fear the ultimate superpower: the people, a well-informed citizenry. The point of managing information is that those in power need a new mandate at a given interval – every five years in Malawi. Ideally, the electorate vote based on what they know of their leaders. Therefore, it is ideal for those seeking new mandate to limit what the electorate know.

If you manage information well, you can make voting a mere formality. As Chomsky noted: “We can make it [voting] irrelevant because we can manufacture consent and make sure that their [voters] choices and attributes will be structured in such a way that they will always do what we tell them … so we’ll have a real democracy, it will work properly.”

This is why Malawi, like all democracies, does not need Ministry of Information. Democracy demands that governments be transparent and accountable, and information plays a key role in this.

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