Malawi’s prominent journalists Ralphael Tenthani well known for his popular column, “The Muckraking” which provides political analysis on topical issues has been named for Nyasa Times ‘person of the year’ 2014. He has been the subject of controversy for his candid reporting on political issues. Editorial director for Nyasa Times, Thom Chiumia engaged Tenthani for an interview below.
Nyasa Times: You have been named together with the ‘fourth estate’ – the media in Malawi – as ‘Personality of the Year’ by Nyasa Times. What do you make of it?
Tenthani: Well, I am actually surprised, if not humbled, by the recognition. It’s encouraging to realise that the little things one does are recognised and appreciated.
Nyasa Times: Who is Raphael Tenthani? Many people would like to know you better, how do you describe yourself?
Tenthani: I am me so I don’t know how to describe myself. I would rather others do that job for me. Better still I would rather let my works do that for me.
I prefer being as private as possible about private issues although that becomes hard when you have a public name.
Nyasa Times: Your column ‘Muckraking on Sunday’ which appears in The Sunday Times and is reproduced by Nyasa Times among various online outlets has become popular and indeed you have your own critics, some go as far as attacking your person rather than the substance of your opinion. What’s your take on such feedback?
Tenthani: Well, my column is an irreverent look at current affairs. I look at issues as they are. As our daily life is driven by politics, politicians – often those in power (which, by the way, include opposition leaders) – are often in the cross-fire.
My writings will inevitably make a few people unhappy and uncomfortable.
As it happens in life there are several people who are ready to get angry on behalf of others. You see, those that attack my person – not my ideas – are supporters of the people I ‘muckrake’ about, as it were. While the leaders involved take it on the chin, sometimes calling me to disagree with my views or explain issues, their supporters just become angry.
You see what a bad footballer does? When he misses the ball he goes for the leg. That’s what the people who attack me personally do. In fact I am happy when I get attacked personally because I know when they do that that means the point has reached home.
Nyasa Times: Do you have a bone to chew with the current leadership and government?
Tenthani: Why should I? As a patriotic Malawian I would like my government to succeed. But governments can only succeed when leaders’ feet are constantly held to the fire, as it were. Praising leaders even when they are doing a shoddy job is not only unpatriotic but selfish as well.
In fact governments don’t need to be praised. We elect them to do a good job for us. And we pay office holders handsomely for that.
Nyasa Times: There was an issue of the K50,000 cash envelopes from Sanjika Palace from President Peter Mutharika. Why did you decide to accept it, only to return it later, while your colleague George Kasakula rejected it there and then?
Tenthani: You know, we were told by Information Minister Kondwani Nankhumwa that when going out we should collect a fodder which contained, according to him, the President vision for press freedom in Malawi. This was at the end of the interface. We were surprised to find that the fodder contained a blank notepad embossed with the President’s insignia, a pen with the president’s name and the white envelope which contained the K50,000.
We did not know what the money was for. Nobody explained. It was difficult to decide what to do for everyone was going home. Some of us thought giving back the money would be disrespectful. Besides, it would serve no purpose because the officer to which we would have given the money to would just personalise it or so we thought.
Some of us decided to give the money to charity because we did not deserve to be paid just for dining, wining and dancing with the President. Of course George did the most heroic thing by returning the envelope there and then.
By the way, it was not like somebody exposed the K50,000s to make us give it back or donate it to charitable causes. It was the media itself that laughed at the K50,000s.
Nyasa Times: What do you make of the nomination of Malawi media for a good watchdog role?
Tenthani: I think the media is doing a relatively good job and need to be encouraged with such citations.
Nyasa Times: Is there press freedom in Malawi?
Tenthani: I think journalists in Malawi are free to do their job without much hindrance. Of course excitable people would want to intimidate journalists but I believe these people are not sanctioned by authorities. Like I said above, some people tend to get angry on behalf of others. Anti-media laws are also still there but they are hardly used. For that I must commend authorities.
But, unfortunately, the government is the biggest employer of journalists but there is not much freedom for journalists who work for government news outlets. There is still that mentality that government-controlled media must be not only pro-government but also pro-the party in power as well. Which is dead wrong for government comprises the Executive, the Legislature and the Judiciary and, of course, us all. Now we cannot all belong to one party in a multiparty situation.
Nyasa Times: What are the challenges of the media in Malawi?
Tenthani: Because the economy is bad there is not much room to manoeuvre for journalists. Look, we only have two reliable print media houses and most electronic media houses are struggling.
So since the economy is bad media houses are struggling. Taxes and licence fees for both print and electric media are punitive. That is why small media houses fail to grow
Nyasa Times: Finally, where do you work exactly for your name is all over?
Tenthani: I am basically a freelance journalist. Of course I am a correspondent for the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC), Pan African News Agency (PANA) and the Associated Press (AP), three of the best media houses in the world.
I am also contracted to write periodically for a number of South African, British, French and American newspapers and magazines.
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