Malawi losing shine on media
Malawi risks losing its envied position as southern Africa's most stable and open country, as power-hungry politicians are increasingly using violence, intimidation, and old and new pieces of legislation against media practitioners to stifle press freedom and gag criticism.
Political pundits and veteran media professionals warn that media freedom is increasingly becoming a luxury rather than the right of people living in a democratic state. Journalists who expose corruption amongst top government officials are physically harassed, abducted, or jailed.
My experience is a case in point. Several weeks ago, my colleague Raphael Tenthani, vice president of the Media Institute of Southern Africa (MISA) Malawi chapter and a correspondent for the British Broadcasting Correspondent (BBC), informed me that the police were looking for me. I suspect that the police hunt is just a follow-up to what happened to me in the past.
On January 7, 2001, the police interrogated me for three hours at Southern Malawi Police Headquarters at Chichiri in Blantyre. They mainly asked me why I write articles that are against the government. They took statements from me and said that I must return after they table my responses to the authorities.
This occurred barely five months after I was abducted on Sunday, August 12, 2001, at Chileka Airport in Blantyre by Young Democrats, a youth group allied with the ruling United Democratic Front (UDF). I was at the airport covering the arrival of heads of state attending the 2001 Southern African Development Community (SADC) summit in Malawi.
The seven youths, wearing official SADC security badges, approached me and asked me to leave the airport premises, accusing me of writing what they termed "stupid" stories against President Bakili Muluzi and the government in the weekly "Mirror" newspaper. The "Mirror" is published by former senior minister Brown Mpinganjira, who since his dismissal has formed an opposition pressure group that is very critical of the Muluzi administration.
My abductors accused me of being a spy for Mpinganjira, even though I showed them an official SADC press accreditation card and documents. As they severely beat me, they accused me of being a supporter of Mpinganjira's National Democratic Alliance pressure group. I was rescued by a senior police officer who drove me to a nearby police station after I had sustained a slight fracture in my jaw.
I was kept at the police station for three hours. According to the senior police officer, this was for my own safety. No arrests have been made to date.
Despite returning to multiparty democracy in 1994, the government of Malawi has continued to infringe upon press freedom, even though one of the tenants of multiparty democracy was the assurance of a free press.
Shortly after the 1994 election, President Bakili Muluzi barred The Democrat newspaper from publishing an old picture of him in a prison uniform. The picture was taken after Muluzi was sentenced to six months in prison as a young man for stealing six pounds ten shillings.
In 1995, President Muluzi took Blantyre Newspapers Limited to court for reporting that the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank had criticized Muluzi for building a multi-million house in the commercial city of Blantyre. Muluzi expressed disappointment about the quality of reporting in the country and warned members of the Journalists Association of Malawi (JAMA) that he was not going to sit idly and let them discredit him or his government.
Time and time again, the police have arrested practising journalists, accusing them of writing what the government terms "insulting" articles.
In January 1998, for instance, members of the Malawi Army raided the offices of The Daily Times, destroying computers and beating up journalists. This was in response to an article in The Daily Times that reported that HIV/AIDS is rampant in the Malawi military force. Then defence minister Joseph Kubwalo supported the raid on The Daily Times, saying that "any journalist and newspaper who provoke the army by writing negative stories will bear the consequences."
In June of that same year, the Malawi government banned a German-sponsored newspaper Take Part, which was promoting human rights and democracy, because it was a foreign-owned publication.
Three months later, in September, the government ordered the closure of the opposition newspaper National Agenda because its real owners were not registered with the Office of the Registrar General. Owner Thabwa Kaiya was detained for several days. "After being attacked several times by thugs sponsored by the state, I just decided to publish the paper for the fear of losing my life," says Kaiya.
The Malawi Journalists' Union says it is ironic that, after journalists were prevented from operating freely during the one-party dictatorship of Dr Kamuzu Banda and his Malawi Congress Party, they are still unable to operate freely following the collapse of the Banda regime in 1994.
The union's interim president, Mavuto Banda, notes how the same people who preached democracy and the virtues of press freedom are against its full maturity. "We are witnessing a worrying trend in this country," says Banda. "We are seeing politicians that came to power in the name of democracy turning their backs on their instruments of democracy." P Meanwhile, many international media watchdogs have condemned the Muluzi administration for harassing journalists. One such body is the Canadian Committee to Protect Journalists (CCPJ). In an October 11, 2001 letter to Muluzi, CCPJ expressed concern over the deterioration of press freedom in Malawi and other SADC member states.
The organisation said that its research "has revealed an alarming pattern of harassment and intimidation of independent journalists, severe censorship, and the use of repressive laws to silence those perceived to oppose ruling parties and governments."
CCPJ reminded Muluzi that "Article 17 of the SADC Information Protocol, which the SADC ratified on 30 May, commits member states to 'cooperate and collaborate in the promotion, establishment and growth of all forms of media for the free flow of information, the strengthening of public information institutions to be effective gatherers and disseminators of information and news."
And CCPJ has taken note of what had happened to me. In its letter, the organisation told Muluzi that "no journalist should ever receive the treatment meted out to Ligomeka, who was brutally beaten for simply doing his professional duty."
Besides being stifled by violence, censorship, and other attempts by the government to muzzle it, the media in Malawi face an even more pervasive threat to its freedom: much of Malawi's print media and most of its non-religious private radios are owned by politicians themselves.
There are several reasons why this is so. Historically, during the years of single party rule from 1964 to 1994, Dr. Hastings Kamuzu Banda and his Malawi Congress Party (MCP) maintained control by imposing a culture of silence.
In those years, a single government-owned radio station pumped out only what Banda wanted people to hear. There was only one publishing house - Blantyre Print and Publishing Company - that Banda's party ran. It published The Daily Times and its sister weekly, Malawi News. No other organisation or individual was allowed to publish newspapers. For the 30 years that MCP ruled, Malawi had no television station.
Malawians gave a huge sigh of relief following Banda's defeat and Muluzi's entry. By the end of 1994, there were over 30 newspaper titles registered in a country where only two papers owned by Banda had previously existed.
However, this diversity proved to be an illusion, as politicians own the only two dailies that currently exist in Malawi. Aleke Banda, UDF vice-president, and his family own The Daily Nation and its sister paper the Weekend Nation. Blantyre Print and Publishing Company, founded by the late Dr. Kamuzu Banda and historically linked to Malawi Congress Party, owns The Daily Times and its sister weekly Malawi News.
Politicians also control other leading weeklies. The Mirror is owned by Brown Mpinganjira, the leader of the opposition National Democratic Alliance (NDA), while Enquirer is owned by a UDF official named Lucious Chikuni. Two other weeklies The Chronicle, and the People's Eye, are owned by Robert Jamieson and Chinyeke Tembo, media practitioners often accused of receiving financial aid from opposition leaders.
In 1994, the UDF government decided to start a government newspaper, The Weekly News, to present positive news about its activities to counter what it saw as negative stories by opposition press.
Like in the case of the print media, ownership of the electronic media has strong links to those who are in power. The Malawi Broadcasting Corporation and Television Malawi are state owned and operate as official voices of the government and the ruling United Democratic Front.
Two private radio stations also have direct links with those in power. Radio Power 101 FM is owned by Oscar Thomson, son of Harry Thomson, a senior cabinet minister and UDF parliamentarian. Capital Radio is owned by Alaudin Osman, a former press officer for Muluzi.
Media analyst Dr Diana Cammack says that the ownership of newspapers in Malawi is not conducive to press freedom and the free flow of information. "The ownership structure of the private - and increasingly of private radio stations - has been a worrying development for several reasons. Foremost it means that editorial policy is easily influenced by party politics, and that stories (or programmes, in the case of radio) are added or dropped according to political criteria instead of newsworthiness... Through such newspapers the views of politicians are disseminated as fact and real news, which may do disservice to any reader in search of objectivity, in-depth analysis or facts."
It is not surprising that the country is awash with UDF-linked newspapers at the moment, for the Muluzi administration has deliberately and perhaps illegally used government resources to promote papers owned by UDF party supporters.
It is really tough for independent media practitioners to operate in Malawi. MISA’s Tenthani says politicians' tight grip over the media is a big blow because most newspapers owned by media professionals die due to a harsh media environment.
"It is a pity that an undeveloped media culture coupled with low managerial and financial skills has led to the demise of several private newspapers," says Tenthani. "The pattern of the new titles emerging and disappearing gradually has continued especially among those ventures started by professional journalists without the backing of politicians."
In recent years, some promising independent and privately owned newspapers started by professionals -such as The Star, The Independent, and Michiru Sun - were phased out while those publications backed by influential politicians have thrived.