Delving into Chakwera’s pledge to defend journalists, promote freedom of expression

Journalists across the globe yesterday celebrated World Press Freedom Day. Commemorated under the theme “Journalism Under Digital Siege”, the day provided journalists yet another opportunity to celebrate their achievements and to reflect on the challenges affecting their industry.

As the US Secretary of State, Antony Blinken, observed during a press briefing in Washington DC on the occasion of the World Press Freedom Day on Tuesday, free press allows people to engage meaningfully in the political and civic spheres of their communities, their nations, and the world.

“A vibrant independent press is a cornerstone for any healthy democracy.  At its core is the idea that information is a public good, crucial to everything we do, to every decision that we make. And often we trust the press with providing that information.  It’s what helps citizens understand the events, the forces that are shaping their lives,” said Blinken.

Chakwera interacts with ZBS reporter during the World Press Freedom Day breakfast at Kamuzu Palace-pic by Lisa Kadango Malango

He added that accurate reporting shines a bright light on ‘the parts of our societies that need fixing, that need to be illuminated’ by documenting unjust working conditions, corrupt or failing public services, discrimination against women and marginalized groups, abuse of security forces.

The Constitution of Malawi guarantees freedom of expression and media freedom. However, for decades, there have been misgivings on how the government has implemented this constitutional provision.

Governance experts cited the resistance by the previous regimes to pass pro-media legislation, such as the Access to Information Bill drafted by the National Media Institute of Southern Africa/ Malawi chapter (NAMISA).

There have been instances also where journalists have been arrested for doing their job. In 2006, for instance, two journalists were detained for writing articles about ghosts visiting the State House during the late President Bingu wa Mutharika reign. They were being asked to provide the source of their information.

Ironically, no one hears of the cases again after the arrested journalists have been released from incarceration, mostly under a silent bargain of “when we release you, do not make any more noise.

Journalists working for the public broadcaster receive pressure from their superiors to censor themselves when writing political stories. Innocent Chitosi former MISA Malawi National Director said, “Of late, politicians have been so subtle in their harassment of journalists…mainly it is the politicians who do the harassing, and maybe they are seconded by the business sector. Police have often taken journalists and released them after a few hours.

MISA Chair Tereza Ndanga making her address

“Photojournalists, when they are taking pictures at a public rally, are arrested. Police say they should get prior permission from the police headquarters.”

Generally, the public speaks out against arbitrary arrests of journalists, voicing their concerns through letters to editors in newspapers and through phone-in programs on various independent radio stations.

But there seems to be a ray of hope for journalists now. When he treated journalists to a sumptuous breakfast at the State House in Lilongwe on Tuesday, President Dr. Lazarus McCarthy Chakwera assured journalists and reiterated his commitment to preserving and defending the Constitution.

Chakwera also vowed to “do right to all manner of people according to law without fear or favour, affection or ill-will. So help me God!”

“And on this World Press Freedom Day, I thought to invite all of you journalists here so that I could assure you in person of my personal resolve and my Government’s commitment to the preservation and defense of a Constitutional provision that concerns your profession in particular. I am, of course, referring to Section 36, which says: the press shall have the right to report and publish freely, within Malawi and abroad, and to be accorded the fullest possible facilities for access to public information. And since we now live in the digital age where many people access information through social media, it is necessary and prudent to regard Section 36 as the identical twin of Section 35, which guarantees every person the right to freedom of express,” said the President.

However, President Chakwera emphasized the need for self-regulation to ensure that any time a journalist publishes something or a social commentator says something, people should never react in a manner that infringes on their freedom to do so.

He said the principle of self-restraint applies to him, every public official, every agency of the state, and every citizen.

“Freedom of the press and freedom of expression means that from time to time someone will write or say things that offend or embarrass us, but that does not give any of us the license to deal with them. We too can write and say something to defend ourselves, and if we feel our name and reputation has been unjustly defamed, we can even complain to regulatory bodies and the courts that follow strict rules of justice, but we must never seek to harm those who offend us in this way or try to deprive them of their freedom through illegal searches, seizures, arrests, or invasive acts like hacking, harassment, and cyber-bullying. These things have no place in a free country,” narrated Chakwera.

The Malawi leader acknowledged that journalism is a difficult and dangerous work, as most members of the society often misunderstand it.

The profession is also prone to poor imitation by those who have not had any training or are not subject to the same ethical standards you observe.

“Those who seek to corrupt you or weaponize your work to settle personal scores and even to disrupt social order are many. And so it is important for us to celebrate your courage to continue informing the public as well as your efforts to resist the attempts so many make to see your work corrupted or attacked to suit their agendas. Because although I took an oath to preserve and defend your freedom and even invoked the power of heaven to help me do so, I ask you to make my task easier by ensuring that you yourselves are never the first to allow your noble work to be corrupted or left open to attack,” stressed Chakwera.

Media experts Professor Levi Zeleza Manda and Francis Chikunkhuzeni welcomed the decision by Chakwera to personally interact with journalists and his personal commitment to defending journalists in their work.

Manda said the President has demonstrated statesmanship and that this is a milestone in the struggle for a free press in Malawi.

“We commend President Chakwera for taking this direction and I would like to appeal to all government officials to support the President by respecting and promoting freedom of expression,” he said.

Manda and Chikunkhuzeni said they believe that Chakwera’s personal commitment to respecting free press will go a long way in eliminating the “cat-and-mouse” relationship that has been there between the government and media thereby fostering meaningful democracy.

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