Mutharika must show respect for the media, free express

Last Monday’s events at the Kamuzu International Airport where President Bingu wa Mutharika was addressing the press must serve to remind all Malawians that while we consider our country to be a democracy, we are, as a matter of fact, only a whisker away from sliding back to the dark days of authoritarianism where the media was regarded, not as a partner, but an enemy of the state and the ruling elite.

President Mutharika was scheduled to address a press conference to explain to Malawians various issues of national concern in view of the fact he has been out of the country on a combination of official and personal vacation abroad at a time when Malawi is facing numerous challenges.

In keeping with what has become the new way of doing things by the Mutharika administration, what was meant to be a press conference was, in fact, turned into a political party rally – only that at this political rally, the media were allowed to ask questions.

Capital FM reporter Ntchindi Meki was at the hostile presidentiaL press conference, Photo: Times Group

There is absolutely no problem for President Mutharika’s Democratic Progress Party (DPP), or any political party for that matter, to organize and hold a political rally at which the media are allowed to ask questions.

What is wrong is for such events to be disguised as presidential press conferences paid for by the state. We do not need to explain to President Mutharika – who takes pride in being addressed by the distinguished title of ‘professor’ – what a press conference is.

Press Conferences must remain as such. They must be a forum where eminent persons calling them take the opportunity to explain to the country, through the media, whatever issues they wish to explain while at the same time allowing the media to freely ask questions and seek clarifications.

Press Conferences must generally be attended by persons addressing them, on the one hand, and members of the press, on the other.

Persons addressing press conferences may choose to co-address the press or be accompanied by personal assistants or other helpers, but these must never have any visible roles like prescribing what questions members of the press can or can’t ask.

What happened at the Kamuzu International Airport where journalists were verbally abused and even threatened with physical violence is both deeply regrettable and totally unacceptable.

It is demeaning to the press and a complete disregard to provisions of Malawi Constitution on Freedom of the Press (Section 34) and Freedom of Expression Section 35).

We call upon President Mutharika and the people close to him to acknowledge that the experience journalists were made to go through belong to the past and accordingly take the following steps.

a)      Apologize to members of the media for the traumatizing experience they were subjected to at this “Press Conference” and at all other similar “press conferences” where such uncivilized acts have been allowed to occur.

b) All party functionaries who took it upon themselves to threatened members of the press verbally or physically be held in contempt of the Constitutional Provision of freedom of the press, be publicly censured and be made to understand who journalists really are and why it is important that, rather that prevent them doing their work, they actually be helped to do it well.

c) Ensure that in future, press conferences must be held in an environment where members of the press have an opportunity to do their job professionally without being subjected to any threats and/or other uncivilized and cowardly acts of party mobs.

President Mutharika and his government must remember that the Media is an essential part of Malawi’s democracy. Our country cannot afford to return the days when party functionaries made it impossible journalists to ply their trade.

The behavior of DPP cohorts clearly have all the hallmarks of people intent on killing media freedom and professionalism. Malawians who love their country must allow this to happen!

*Peter Jegwa for Free Expression Institute,  an independent civil society organization working for the promotion and enhancement of free expression in Malawi.

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