Mutharika regime muzzled Malawi media -Misa report

Today May 3 is World Press Freedom Day, established by the United Nations to raise awareness of the importance of freedom of the press and to serve as a reminder to governments of their duty to respect and uphold the right to freedom of expression.

Media Institute of Southern Africa (Misa)the region’s leading media watchdog has released a damning report that indicts Malawi’s former governing Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) led government of stifling press freedom.

The 2012 annual report on state of media freedom in Southern Africa which is Nyasa Times possession is covering a total of 11 countries in the region and has been released at a time Malawi joins the rest of the world in commemorating world press freedom day.

Late Mutharika: Muzzled the press

In the report Misa has since condemned decision by the state run broadcaster MBC to ban playing on its airwaves music deemed to be critical of the then ruling elite as well as by allowing itself to be used as government of late president Bingu wa Mutharika’s mouthpiece.

“The year 2010 began on a rather bad note when the state controlled broadcaster banned the playing on its airwaves of music by a popular musician critical of government. One of the songs questioned the manner in which succession within the ruling party hierarchy was being dealt with,” says the report in reference to banning of music icon Lucius Banda’s Life album.

Misa further recognized the role Media Council of Malawi, has played over the years by launching the Code of Ethics and Professional Conduct as well the Accreditation Policy and Press Card Scheme aimed at governing the conduct of journalists and media house owners.

On decision by government to table and a pass bill that empowered information minister to ban any publication deemed not to be in the interest of the public, the report observed that such practice is undemocratic and draconian.

Reads the report in part: “The events in the year showed that while the media took steps to regulate themselves so as to operate better and monitor the conduct of wayward characters, ruling party leaders tried and probably succeeded to instill fear in media practitioners notwithstanding the presence of section 36 of the Constitution of the Republic of Malawi which states that the press shall have the right to report and publish freely.”

Misa therefore noted with concern the relationship that has been there between print media especially The Nation Publications Limited (NPL),  Blantyre Newspapers Limited on one hand and the Mutharika administration  saying on the other saying it was way out of line and counterproductive.

“The relationship between the state and the media has not been an enviable one. A ban was effected against advertising in media outlets deemed critical of government. Nation Publications Limited (NPL), one of the major print media houses, had its journalists barred from attending government functions even where the invitation had been extended to them by other stakeholders,” says Misa in the report.

Meanwhile,  Misa quotes then government officials through the Presidential Press Officer, as arguing that “it was not compelled by the Constitution to advertise in all media outlets and as such could advertise through a medium of its choice.”

In a related incident Misa also blamed the former ruling party through its spin doctor for attacking a columnist with Blantyre Newspapers Limited (BNL), another leading media institution and the oldest in the country, for an article he had published on the perceived sidelining by late President Mutharika of his Vice now state President Mrs Joyce Banda.

“On yet another occasion, a BNL journalist had to be whisked away to safety by armed policemen, when he had been threatened with injury by DPP zealots after he had asked the Head of State Bingu wa Mutharika about fuel shortage and limited forex in the country. In another development, the National Archives banned the publication of BNL’s “Weekend Times”, a Friday afternoon paper on the ground that it was not registered with their office yet the paper had been in circulation for almost a year. These unfortunate developments did not only affect the operations of the media houses as business entities but also led to suppression of media freedom and freedom of expression,” noted the media watchdog.

Further to that the Windhoek, Namibia based watchdog also stated that journalists and media owners were left with no choice but to toll government line in order to survive.

Meanwhile, Misa has since applauded the country’s judiciary for rising above political strides by standing by the media as evidenced by the acquittal a journalist who was prosecuted for publishing an article that was likely to cause fear and alarm in the public. The court found the article balanced and fair and also took note of the need to promote the constitutionally guaranteed press freedoms.

On access to information bill, Misa says in its findings among government departments and ministries to determine the most and least accessible government office it is the Ministry of Agriculture and Food Security that was found to be most accessible while the Directorate of Road Traffic was the least accessible.

“The fight for media freedom and access to information was dealt a blow when the Parliamentary committee on Media and Communications informed the November sitting of Parliament that the Access to Information Bill had not yet been drafted as it had to be preceded by the development of a policy. It was otherwise believed by the media that the bill had already been drafted,” concluded the report.

Meanwhile, newly sworn in president Banda’s government has not responded to the sins committed by Mutharika’s DPP led government.

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