Malawi journalism needs to discipline itself

Mr Justice Mponda of Malawi Voice, an online publication, was arrested this week. Mr Mponda, aged 27 years, has been a journalist for some time, having been a stringer for Malawi News and other notable media bodies before becoming associated with Malawi Voice.

His arrest, we are told, was prompted by an article published by Malawi Voice alleging that Tanzania’s Ambassador to Malawi, Mr Patrick Tsere, had been declared persona non grata for reasons altogether unclear, which, of course, was not true.

Mr Mponda is answering to the charge of publishing false information using a fake presidential Facebook page .

In a strongly worded statement, the Media Institute of Southern Africa (MISA) Malawi Chapter called the arrest ‘unconstitutional’ and ‘retrogressive for Malawi’s nascent democracy.’

MISA Malawi Chair Anthony Kasunda with President Joyce Banda: No bad blood between state and media in Malawi

Glaringly missing from the MISA statement is condemnation of irresponsible journalism. A journalist cannot sit in front of his computer and create news. What is called ‘news’ should be based on facts. A journalist is supposed to go out there and look for news.

CP Scott, who was editor of the UK’s Guardian for almost 60 years (1872 to 1929), wrote, in 1921, that ‘comment is free, but facts are sacred.’ Ordinary citizens like me can make any comment on Facebook or Twitter, and it matters less whether it is true or not, and, frankly, nobody gives a damn.

But news in a publication is different. It is taken seriously. There is a presumption that what has been written is the truth, not fiction. If I wanted to read fiction I could go to websites such as Kwani, Chimurenga, Granta and The New Yorker. But I open Malawi Voice, Nyasa Times, Malawi Democrat, BNL Times, Nation, Capital Radio and Zodiak websites to read the truth.

The intelligence of all Malawians is, therefore, insulted if you media organizations publish what is untrue. Media organizations such as Malawi Voice – which, by the way, I read – do manhandle the truth quite often, and this is not right. It should not be condoned.

We rely on the media to be watchdog of our democracy. By that we expect a reliable watchdog, not one that peddles falsehoods in the name of freedom of expression.

Now, I am all for freedom of expression, and I would want this to be guarded jealously. I know what it means to live under oppression, having lived the first 18 years of Malawi under the autocratic Malawi Congress Party rule. But when it comes to journalism, a profession that thrives on the truth, I want a line drawn between force-feeding the public with lies and freedom of expression.

The problem we have in Malawi is that journalism is the only profession that fails to discipline itself. If I violate my core ethics as an accountant, I get disciplined by the Society of Accountants in Malawi. If a lawyer breaks ethics, he gets disciplined by the Malawi Law Society. If a journalist breaks ethics, nobody disciplines him. There is only the state to react, and when it does, media bodies are quick to brand it oppression.

In my view a journalist should not create news, but should do adequate research. Publishing that the Tanzanian ambassador to Malawi had been declared persona non grata — especially when our relationship with Tanzania is precarious — was irresponsible journalism.

That said, charges against Mr Justice Mponda need to be dropped, but a way has to be found for the journalism profession to discipline itself.

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