The mainstream private media in Malawi have threatened to give President Peter Mutharika a “news blackout” unless press freedom is guaranteed by his administration. The media made this declaration following a meeting convened last week at Mount Soche Hotel in Blantyre.
Representatives from the media houses also agreed to “boycott” press conferences by the Head of State and cabinet ministers in recognition of what was described as “the highly belligerent attitude that the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) Government has taken against the private media to silence it from telling Malawians the truth”.
In hindsight, the threats that the media have issued through what is now called the Mount Soche Declaration signed by Nation Publications Limited (NPL), Capital Radio Malawi Limited, Times Group, ZBS, MIJ FM Radio Station, Media Institute of Southern Africa (Misa) Malawi Chapter and Media Council of Malawi (MCM), can be deemed as welcome and in good intention if Malawi is to safeguard press freedom and consolidate its democracy as stipulated by the country’s constitution.
However, after several attempts to make sense of the decree and reflecting on its threats, in both instances I end up with the same conclusion: the Mount Soche Declaration is a threat not only to the country’s democracy, but to both press freedom which the media seek its assurance as well as the public’s right to access information. The decree is outlandish and must be opposed; it is a licence issued by the Media to Mutharika and his administration to plunder.
With the Mount Soche Declaration, the media joins government in ganging up against the public in the attempt by the executive arm of government and the fourth estate to square their vendettas.
It is without debate that the media plays a crucial role in any democracy. As such, press freedom must be guarded jealously particularly against attempts by those in power (politicians and media owners alike) to stifle it.
It is when the environment is not conducive for the press to exercise its duty that the public needs the media most; to be informed of government’s undertakings so that the employers (the public) can hold accountable the employees (politicians and those in public positions). It is therefore surprising to learn that instead of playing its role, the media wants to run into some dark corner operating on a ‘see nothing, hear nothing, say nothing’ maxim.
Here are questions that the media needs to answer before the Mount Soche Declaration sees light of the day: what direction will the news blackout on Mutharika, the Cabinet and government arms take? Does this mean during the news-blackout period, the press will stop investigating Mutharika? If they find some ministers engaging in corruption, will the press remain mum, or is it simply about ‘black-outing’ on positive news for the regime? If the case is black-out on positive news, how then can people trust such a media that is preferring to walk a biased instead of a balanced news path?
The news blackout is the best Christmas gift that the media can ever give the president and the cabinet to pillage public resources knowing there is no one watching over them; to blow the horn or offer the much needed checks. Through the decree, the media acknowledges that they have a duty to the public to serve as the Fourth Estate to provide checks and balance and provide information that could enable the People hold those in public offices accountable for their decisions but how will this be achieved if the media has locked itself inside a room darker than the ‘media blackout’?
It is for these reasons that I consider the Mount Soche Declaration a threat to democracy and press freedom. I am therefore pleased that Chanco Radio and TV have decided to not be associated with such a declaration. However, their reason for not being a private media to be part of the Mount Soche Declaration means that Malawi media have a long way to go to understand what the actual role of the press is.
*This article first appeared on the author’s blog.