Yes,they violate press freedom
BY Sly Gwaza, Freelance Independent Journalist
The treatment of journalists at Presidential airport press conferences continues to be a disgrace. What happened in Lilongwe on 21 November on the arrival of the President from his holiday is a stark reminder that press freedom in Malawi is still under siege.
On that day journalists from independent media were booed and intimidated by the assembled DPP party zealots whenever the scribes wanted to ask questions. Even worse, the president himself scathingly attacked the media as irresponsible, thereby setting an intimidatory tone to the press conference.
This kind of media treatment calls for a boycott of all government functions by independent journalists. Giving government a total media blackout is the only way of ensuring that the state should start appreciating the role of the media.
Presidential and other government functions are by their nature prominent events, and all media are naturally interested to cover them. In this way the government gets free publicity which it would seriously miss if there was a private media blackout. Government forgets this.
It is not easy for government to fill any vacuum created by a private media blackout. For starters, government cannot compete in the newspaper business which is dominated by two private, and so far independent, companies.
Secondly, MBC radio is increasingly facing stiff competition and getting fewer and fewer listeners because of its lack of news credibility. The MBC TV is the last frontier for government propaganda, and will soon be submerged once new TV licences are inevitably issued.
These ill conceived presidential press conferences have long been condemned by the media industry. The trend started with UDF's Bakili Muluzi and is being perfected by Bingu wa Mutharika.
The media industry has recommended that the setting of such press conferences should consider safety of journalists. It should be clear as to who attends such events, and what venues are appropriate and acceptable.
Certainly putting journalists in an open space surrounded by a narrow-minded mob of fanatical party zealots is not the solution.
The way these press conferences are arranged is a violation of freedom of the press and expression, and threatens the personal security of journalists. It is difficult for journalists to perform their basic political duty of demanding accountability from public officials in such settings.
It only works to the advantage of government officials because they get away with their mistakes and incompetence.
Clearly, the current government would like the media to be timid and not ask critical questions. In this way all media would become public relations parrots for the government. But this can only be wishful thinking and misplaced nostalgia for Dr. Banda's dictatorial days.
President Mutharika contends that the Malawi media only concentrates on the negative and ignores the positive developments in the country.
The president's point is worth considering, but it cannot mean that journalists should become government public relations officers. Neither patriotism nor professionalism calls for that kind of journalism.
Government has so many channels for announcing its successes. But its shortfalls can only be exposed by a diligent and fearless independent media.
It must be noted also that government never appreciates the positive contribution of the independent media, but only concentrates on what it sees as negatives. In this way government also is failing in its responsibility.
The insults and intimidation directed at journalists by party zealots are similarly insults to the people of Malawi whom these journalists represent. In a democracy, it is the responsibility of journalists to demand accountability from public officials on behalf of the people.
On this note, the professional determination of journalists from Zodiak, Blantyre newspapers and other independent media in asking critical questions in a tense atmosphere should be commended.
The police should also be applauded for ensuring that no member of the fourth estate was harassed after that fateful 21 November press conference.
It is possible that government would use to its own advantage any boycott by the private media. Government could hold fake media conferences with its own state and affiliated media. They would stifle the life out of private media by withholding adverts.
But this would only further expose the state's disregard for constitutional freedoms and provoke dire consequences at international level.
Lastly, a private media boycott would work very well if it was accompanied by a mass audience switch-off of all state affiliated propaganda mouthpieces
No, It will take us nowhere
BY John Mchilikizo, Chief Information Officer(Press) and Managing Editor, Mana
The incidence that happened in at Kamuzu International Airport in Lilongwe on Monday, at a news conference the State President addressed on return from Hong Kong, where journalists were booed by Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) followers may prompt some journalists, especially those from the private media, to boycott news conferences addressed by the head of state at the Airport or indeed anywhere else.
I think the press should NOT boycott such press conferences.
To begin with, we say the press is a fourth estate, meaning they are an arm of Government. Just as Members of Parliament, the duty of journalists is to provide checks and balances to what the executive is doing.
Journalists have a duty to bring Government to account by reporting its activities. This they can do responsibly by asking Government officials, Cabinet ministers including the President questions which are pertinent for the well-being of all Malawians, without fear or favour.
Secondly everyone, including journalists, have a duty to contribute to the social and economic development of our country. Journalists too have a stake in that. They are a very important sector that contributes significantly to national development.
Thirdly, I do not think any well-meaning Malawian will want to see a repeat of what happened at KIA on Monday, not even Government. Therefore, Government will ensure that those journalists are respected first and foremost because they are human beings and secondly because of the nature of their job.
Government realises that journalists have a very important duty of informing and educating the nation so that ordinary Malawians are well informed of what is happening in the country in order for them to make informed choices and decisions and participate meaningfully in national development.
Government will also ensure that journalists are well protected and are not subjected to any form of unwarranted intimidation, torture or harassment in course of carrying out their noble duty.
Government, therefore, will always provide adequate security for everyone, and journalists in particular, at public functions, not only at the airport but anywhere else so that they undertake their assignments freely.
It is also common knowledge that due to the nature of their job, journalists are misunderstood and sometimes mistaken for dissidents. This mainly stems from the fact that not many people really understand the role of journalists in society and how they are supposed to discharge their duties.
This is the more reason why journalists should always avail themselves to public or presidential functions being it at State House, the airport or a community ground and ask questions or bring to the attention of the powers that be about the issues that of importance or will contribute to the transformation of the living conditions of most if not all Malawians for the better.
In times of misunderstandings or potential danger or tension between the state and the media, I think the best is to engage one another to get to the root of the problem and together find a lasting solution to it through appropriate channels.
I believe the media through organisations such the Media Council of Malawi and Media Institute of Southern Africa have engaged Government before on issues relating to media freedom.
Government's doors of dialogue are wide open and I think the media should continue engaging it on things the media feel are not going on well between the two sides.
The Monday incident at KIA should help all of us to reflect on what might have gone wrong and should also help us collectively work hard in finding solutions to our differences and together forge ahead for the good of our nation. Boycott will take us nowhere!