Freedom of Expression, is guaranteed in the Malawi Constitution, but everywhere from public offices to the private sector, one would feel the country slowly going back to the era of silence. “Some things are better left unsaid,” most argue, following one of the many repressive cultural adages that has created dictators in the past.
Government or someone in Government decided in their own wisdom, that Nation Publications Limited, has exercised free expression too far, according to theories of political patronage, and that Malawians- who includes employees of NPL and pay tax, should not get adverts through the papers.
The tactic used is not a strange one, in the late 1997 or thereabout, the UDF administration were incensed with Malawi News, then a firebrand of investigative journalism, and consequently banned advertising in all Blantyre Newspapers products.
The good thing about democracy, is that it outlasts dictators and political loyalists with misguided visions. Malawi’s democracy triumphed in the end, the newspapers actually outlived the notorious young democrats.
That was a free lesson from UDF administration, but it does not seem to have been noticed and politics of patronage, where only positive choruses are allowed seem to be a new order of the day.
Unfortunately it does not matter which side of the political coin one belongs, opposition or Government, freedom of expression, opinion and even thought is today at crossroads. The Non-governmental organizations that protected a minority DPP regime today need permission to speak.
The first victim of a stifled press and some irrational decisions are the public. The price is too high to be quantified as NPL might be able to do to its revenue after a period.
Government is trying to communicate public messages, but it wants only perceived “clean and loyal hands” to handle their messages. The consequences will be harder if not impossible to imagine as not all papers reach the same audience.
Take adverts that are running in a local and weekly daily, warning the public of measles, FUKO, a latest free paper from NPL would be the right forum as it is targeting rural areas and the affected districts such as Mangochi, Mzimba, Blantyre and Lilongwe would have easy access to information if all forms of media were used.
In some areas, only one newspaper reaches the district in time, business opportunities that were meant to empower Malawians from rural areas advertised as Government tenders, cannot be accessed either in time or simply not seen by rural traders.
Freedom of expression is therefore not a luxury, it transcends many issues, from economic to fighting corruption, as a culture of fear and silence that is being enforced would not be conducive to whistle blowers as they will not get any protection.
The public interest that both the media and Government claim to serve, should be a strong drive for any Government decision, rather than political, tribal or petty jealousies in formulating public policy that uses public taxes.
Nobody in the DPP or Government would die or be financially affected, if the public gets information through the Nation whose reporters today are treated as ‘lapers’ and made to suffer public humiliation of being asked to leave Government functions as if they were terrorists.
Democracy was defined as Government for the people, by the people and the people. NPL can claim to have helped to shape public opinion, as a media on social, economic and development issues, and it remains a key player in the industry, that needs to be partnered not destroyed.
Most politicians claim to be democrats, but just as the bible claims, “not by the words, but their deeds and fruits you shall know them” slowly, the democrats, the leaders the media defended against on overwhelming opposition, the NGO leaders that sweated, horned and stood with them, are producing the fruits of their time.
Kamlepo Kalua, once said, “A hyena is a hyena, it cannot change spots with the bushes.”
Add Former Alliance for Democracy (AFORD) Secretary General Dan Msowoya’s “somepeople are a misfit in democracy.” You start getting a picture as famously put by the Late Chimpimpha Mughogho- an imagination that creates a moving picture.
No compelling case has been made in the country as to why NPL, MIJ or even NGO’s voices should be suppressed.
A self acclaimed successful Bingu administration, does not need questions on free speech, advert ban or stifling Civil Society. It needs to stand tall and claim its place in history- we did it for Malawi and Malawians. We strengthened democracy and we changed lives.
Instead, the successes of President Bingu wa Mutharika’s administration, today are being measured, by the lesser issues that were already solved in 1993 through a referendum question, which Malawians opted for a free speech, free conscience and free political choices.
One of the character of President Bakili Muluzi, was the thin line between a democrat and a dictator that a book, neither a democrat nor a dictator was published, which summed up many feelings of Malawians that were beaten up, roughed or faced the wrath of the ruling elite.
“The evil that men do, lives after them,” the irony of democracy is that it is not a perfect system, but it does not have anything closer or similar to it, and for many Malawians who have tested both dictatorship and democracy, they prefer to maintain the path of democracy.
The simple reality is that killing NPL will only set back democracy, but the monsters that can unleashed from such a dead spirit will be greater than the professional set up of NPL, which can negotiate professional and settle differences.
Already, nobody can tame Nyasatimes the online news outlet, as it has its base and freedoms very much outside public interests that established media houses have.
In short, politics of patronage run counter to any democratic norm. That is why within the opposition Malawi Congress Party (MCP) people like Abele Kayembe, Titus Malipa and Beston Majoni are serving suspensions for exercising freedom of expression.
In DPP the list is growing, from Harry Mkandawire to three elected parliamentarians whose crime was not to have learned quickly that freedom of expression is on paper in our political parties.
After many press conferences, President Bingu wa Mutharika, after grilling with each other as a media and a president, he comes down and shakes hands with journalists, and more than once, he has said, “Aluta continua.”
Let the struggle come to an end, Malawi is a full democracy! The African Union Chairman needs to be the standard bearer of democracy including protecting and defending free press, which includes advertising even in what is considered as hostile media.
Just a few months ago, President Barack Obama staff made a decision not to deal with Fox News, accusing it of being a rightwing machinery, last Friday, the President of the United States of America granted an exclusive interview to Fox news, much to disappointment of his lieutenants.
President Bingu wa Mutharika, as Chairman of the African Union, as a self-professed democrat and as someone who has lived and worked in the diasporas, can order a change in the ban or issues of free speech in Malawi. He only holds the keys.
The Government advertisement are not a luxury to Malawians, they are a right to information. Campaigns such as BUY MALAWIAN can only make sense if Malawian industries including Nation Publications Limited are supported and made to grow.
If Government sees shortfalls in NPL, as Mutharika has more that once said, “I will send you for further training.” That to me is a great solution that denying Malawians an opportunity to receive Government information.
That information helps school leavers to apply for jobs, contractors to bid for contracts and as the past three months has seen vital information, such as new passport fees, health information on cholera and measles, agriculture information on tobacco season or subsidy and even celebratory announcements like presidential engagements were lost as some Malawians could only access Nation Publications Products.
NPL might lose part of its revenue yes, but the biggest loser is the Malawi public, who now have to search harder or buy more than one newspaper to receive information.
For the country’s democracy, indeed aluta continua Your Excellency, the struggle continues even in the era of an African Union Chairman!
Long live democracy!