Succession uncertainty: The future of press freedom in Malawi

Journalists unconvinced transition of presidential power alone will translate into improved press freedom

Joyce Banda was sworn in as Malawi’s newest president on April 7 under the terms of the constitution, following two days of political uncertainty after the sudden death of the late Bingu wa Mutharika.

Having won national and international recognition for championing the education and rights of underprivileged girls, Banda’s ascension to the state house has raised hopes for a fresh start for the impoverished nation.

But in a place where a two-day national news blackout left Malawian media scrambling to ascertain the fate of the late head of state, what can be said for the future of press freedom under the new leader?

According to Daniel Nyirenda, deputy editor of The Daily Times and editor of The Business Times, it will take more than a transition of power to translate into improved media freedom.

“We are at a period now where there has been a suppression of media freedoms,” said Nyirenda, citing “bad laws” for press freedom that were enacted during Mutharika’s second term of office.

“We’ve also seen threats from the executive arm of government on the media and the banning of advertising to media that is unfriendly to government,” Nyirenda added.  “Reporters or even newspapers are afraid to publish certain stories for fear of getting a backlash from the executive arm of government.”

When asked if rights media might improve now that the executive arm of government is under Banda’s new leadership, Nyirenda said he is unsure.

“In my view, I think much won’t change because it’s the same people really, just wearing new clothes.  In Malawi, we have people who believe in controlling the media…so much won’t change.

“But, I’m hopeful that now that (Banda) has tasted life in the opposition she has learnt a lesson and she might be more flexible in the way she handles the media.”

Based on comments from The Daily Times’ current chief reporter, Charles Mpaka, Nyirenda’s hope may stand to come true.

While Mpaka said that colleagues working longer in the industry have testified that Banda was averse to criticism from the media and personally attacked journalists when serving as a minister, he added that after she was ousted from the Democratic Progressive Party in December 2010 and started her opposition People’s Party, “she was reachable on her phones and willing to talk all the times that (he) phoned her.”

However, he added, the interviews were on issues serving her interests.

“From the experience that I have had with Malawian politicians, I would not rush to conclude that things will get easier for the media.  Politicians do change when they get the power and influence.”

When asked what needs to change to usher in a new “normal” for press freedom in Malawi, Nyirenda said that it’s not the people that need to change but the system.

“We still have a hangover of one-party dictatorship in our laws,” said Nyirenda.  “We also need to change MBC (Malawi Broadcasting Corporation) from a state-controlled institution to a public institution.

“We need to reviews these things – then there will be adequate press freedom in this country.”

This article was originally published on the Toronto Star website on May 4, 2012.

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About karissagall

Karissa Gall is a Canadian journalist.

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