British High Commissioner to Malawi, Michael Nevin has said the country needs its media to flourish, saying society should be in no doubt that without a vibrant media, there will not be a vibrant country.
Nevin was speaking in Lilongwe on Tuesday evening to a gathering of journalists as part of the observance of World Press Freedom Day on May 3, a day which was designated by the United Nations to assess and reinforce the need for a free press.
The British envoy pointed out that the day is meant take stock of the crucial role a free press plays in strengthening democracies and fostering development around the world.
“Malawi needs the media to flourish. It is integral to democracy, development and justice,” said Nevin.
“Just ask Ms Chigolo what she thinks of The Daily Times and [reporter] Gabriel Kamlomo after they highlighted her story, leading to her freedom from prison.
“Just ask the Malawi people whether they value The Nation [daily newspaper] highlighting potential fraud and corruption, or querying procurement decisions and processes around irrigation and other development contracts.
“Ask the rural people how they value MBC, Zodiac, Joy or community radios for raising the issues they care about, alongside Capital Radio and FM101’s more urban based coverage,” said Nevin to drive home his point of the importance of watchdog role of the media.
Nevin pointed out that he was in Malawi for a second tour of diplomatic duty after serving 10 years ago as a press spokesperson for the British government in Malawi.
“I am glad to be able to say that in my opinion standards have improved, particularly in business and investigative journalism,” he noted.
However, the diplomat noted that the media sector is still fragile and that it to deliver more relevant content in a more dynamic and exciting way to an increasingly young and worldly wise population.
“But with MISA, the National Press Club and other organisations, and hopefully with government support, the media has the ability to develop and to continue its leading role as defender and promoter of the nation’s interests.”
Freedom of expression
Nevin said the UK government is a strong supporter of freedom of expression.
“Indeed, freedom of expression on the Internet is one of the Foreign Office’s global thematic human rights priorities. A free media and freedom of opinion and expression are integral to ensuring that citizens can exercise their full democratic rights.
“Freedom of expression is fundamental to building democracy. Citizens must be allowed to discuss and debate issues, to challenge their governments and make informed decisions.”
He said journalists, bloggers, media organisations and individuals must be allowed to operate and to express themselves freely and safely and within international standards.
“Governments need to respond to legitimate aspirations with reform, not repression. Encouraging an open and effective press serves to improve the environment for long-term social, political and economic stability and development,” he advised.
Nevin said when there are debates about the media, they often focus on the role of the media and its responsibilities.
He said the balance between freedom of expression and opinion and ethical reporting is a constant and evolving debate and that it has been spotlighted most recently in the UK with the Leveson Inquiry.
In 2011 the Leveson Inquiry was established to look in to, as one of its two main objectives:”the culture, practices and ethics of the press, including contacts between the press and politicians and the press and the police; it is to consider the extent to which the current regulatory regime has failed and whether there has been a failure to act upon any previous warnings about media misconduct.”
The inquiry came on the back of increasing public concern over the methods by which the media obtained information and concerns over media intrusion into private lives, as well as the relationship between the media, politicians and police.
Of particular concern was “phone hacking”, the illegal means by which some in the media accessed private phone data and phone messages in the pursuit of a story. Perhaps most notoriously, the phone of Milly Dowler, a schoolgirl who was kidnapped and killed in the UK, was found to be hacked after her death by a journalist working for the now defunct News of the World.
He said the British Prime Minister David Cameron welcomed many of the findings of the Report, but had serious misgivings about “crossing the Rubicon” of legislation to regulate the press.
Debate continues today, with media houses offering their own proposals supporting the principle of media freedom while recognising the importance of responsible journalistic methods.
Nevin said Malawi is no stranger to similar debates.
“When I was last posted here 10 years ago, the strength or weakness of the Media Council of Malawi was a constant discussion point. The role of MACRA (Malawi Communications Regulatory Authority) and whether it was, or had the potential to be, used for political control was another topic. Self-censorship by journalists, editors and media outlets was said to be commonplace.
“Malawi’s history over the last few years has demonstrated that those debates are still relevant,” he said.
He welcomed the formation of the National Press Club to help promote such debates and to consider how to protect freedom of expression, opinion and reporting while upholding ethics and journalistic standards.
He also welcomed the recent engagement of President Joyce Banda with media associations, including MISA.
“Such meetings perhaps recall the spirit of that well-known phrase ‘I disagree with what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it’. I am heartened by the President’s statement that the media has a friend in State House. I hope that such engagement will continue,” he said.
The British diplomat said Banda’s government has already made important strides to reverse Malawi’s recent decline in international freedom of the press rankings.
He also noted that the government’s resolve to lift the so-called “bad laws”, particularly Section 46 of the Penal Code, has rightly been applauded internationally.
Nevin encouraged the Malawi government to consider the proposals that MISA has made to update Malawi’s laws in order to remove or modernise a legal framework that some would say runs counter to principles of media freedom.
“ I welcome too the Minister of Information’s commitment to taking forward the Access to Information Bill. It would be a fitting tribute to [late] Anthony Livuza if the Bill was passed. Malawi will have to consider what is workable and affordable,” he said.
“ The point of the Access to Information Bill is to support a dynamic society, which has the promotion of information and accountability as a key enabler for development. It should be part of a broader strategy to push information out to the people as a means to grow the nation, embracing the principles of open Government.”
Responsibility and Challenges
The British diplomat said there has to be a balance, saying the media itself, if it is to retain its credibility (and avoid expensive civil lawsuits), has an interest in promoting and enforcing ethics and high journalistic standards.
“It is in the media’s interest to show that self-regulation is effective; that quality control is a key principle of any media organisation; that the upkeep of journalistic standards and ethics are a central philosophy of the organisation; and that those standards are rigorously promoted and upheld,” he said.
“ It means working against corruption within the media, delivering on-going professional training to journalists and, for editors and sub-editors, maintaining standards and leadership that journalists can aspire to.
“ It also means taking time to better understand and develop expertise in an issue, for example around economics or business contract law, if ill-informed reporting is not to damage the country’s development or reputation.”
Nevin said he recognise the challenges Malawi media faces, saying the commercial base is fragile and prone to loss of revenue arising from disputes with the government of the day.
“Social media should be a key component of any media outlet’s strategy, yet it also challenges the traditional media to adapt if it is to survive. Journalism is a profession, yet too many journalists do not see their profession as a career able to support their families. The pressure to deliver the story quickly is huge,” he said.
Nevin assured that UK can support training, capacity building, sponsor radio programmes and place advertising in media outlets.
“We can defend the media when it is under pressure. We can make ourselves available to the media. I do not think we could or should directly subsidise media outlets. Far better that we help create the economic and knowledge environment that can engender and sustain a growing media sector. But perhaps we could do more to provide private sector development advice to the media, just as we do in other sectors for Malawi’s development,” he said.
The theme of this year’s World Press Freedom Day is “Safe to Speak: Securing Freedom of Expression in All Media”.
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