Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Could Banda be the first Malawian leader to make an independent press a reality?

By Madalitso Hlobisa Ziba, a PDMM student and OSISA scholarship recipient

The advent of multi-party politics in 1994 symbolised the dawn of a new hope for many Malawians. Prior to this, the founder and former head of state, Dr Hastings Kamuzu Banda, had ruled Malawi for nearly three decades. His was a dictatorial regime under the one and only political party allowed in the country, the Malawi Congress Party (MCP). During his reign, press freedom was unheard of. Journalists had to self-monitor their articles for fear of being arrested and, with the Prohibited Publications Act in place, the MCP maintained tight control of the press. The Act allowed the government to ban any publication that it considered critical of Malawi and President Banda in particular.

As per the expectations of many Malawians when Malawi’s former president, Dr Bakili Muluzi of the United Democratic Front (UDF) got into power in 1994 after defeating Dr Banda, the government of Malawi adopted a new constitution a year later. The legal document provided for an independent press alongside other fundamental human rights. The media in Malawi envisioned a better future in as far as an independent press was concerned. The same was true when Malawi’s incumbent President, Joyce Banda, ascended to presidency after the sudden demise of Dr Bingu wa Mutharika. Many Malawians and journalists in particular were looking forward to a new beginning, hoping she could offer something different and better on the media front, especially in the area of press freedom. Now after more than a year in office, can the president assure journalists of an independent press? This article looks at how the three heads of state which Malawi has had since 1994 have violated press freedom in a democratic era and explores the reality of having a president totally in favour of an independent press.

Section 36 of the Constitution of Malawi (1994) provides for an independent press. It states: “The press shall have the right to report and publish freely within Malawi and abroad and be accorded the fullest possible facilities for access to public information.” Additionally, the Media Law Handbook for Southern Africa (pp. 166) points out that the reporting and publishing rights also extend to the international community that reports on Malawi.

Towards the end of Muluzi’s first term, the state-owned Malawi Broadcasting Corporation (MBC) which owns both television and radio, remained under government control. Its programming was dominated by reporting of activities of senior government officials, and opposition parties were denied access. MBC reporters were disciplined or fired for reporting on opposition parties and press conferences were heavily edited to avoid airing sensitive political material. Only a few allies of the government were given licenses to open up private radio stations which, unlike the MBC, had limited listenership. Other radio stations were restricted to broadcasting religious content only and a few development-oriented community radio stations were allowed some space too. Furthermore, the government reportedly harassed journalists using libel and other laws. The Constitution of the Republic of Malawi guarantees freedom of the press but laws such as the 1967 Protected Flag, Emblems, Names Act and the 1947 Printed Publications Act restrict the practicality of the provision (Freedom of the press, 2013). In Malawi libel is considered both a criminal and civil offence. When found guilty under the former, an individual serves a maximum of two years imprisonment. However, many libel cases are processed as civil matters or settled out of court (Freedom of the press, 2013).

In early 1998, soldiers raided offices of The Daily Times after the newspaper published a story which said that military officers were contracting HIV at a much higher rate compared to the civilian population. As if that was not enough, in the same year the government withdrew advertising from the paper and its sister weekly the Malawi News, claiming that it had become very critical of Muluzi. This drove the newspaper into bankruptcy owing to the fact that many newspapers in Malawi rely on government advertising for survival.

Come 2004, Malawi’s newspapers at least enjoyed some freedom to write editorial comments despite the government’s continued stance to control journalists. According to Reporters Without Borders (2004), the Malawi Communications Regulatory Authority (MACRA) ordered community radio stations to stop carrying news programs, arguing that doing so was a violation of Section 51 of the communications law. The ban targeted Radio Maria, Radio Islam, Trans World Radio, Calvary Family Church Radio and the Malawi Institute of Journalism’s radio, all of which interview people belonging to different political parties including the opposition.

Upon completing his second term and after a failed attempt to campaign for a third term, Muluzi handpicked Dr Bingu wa Mutharika as his successor. Mutharika eventually got elected as Malawi’s president in 2004 but after a little while he quit the UDF and formed the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) which became so popular with the masses owing to his sound economic policies. He was thus re-elected into office in 2010. Unlike previously, Mutharika had a hard time delivering during his second term in office. Many believe that a large representation of the DPP in parliament resulted into an autocratic leadership that was not friendly to dissenting views. Mutharika criticised the media, especially newspapers, for continuously reporting him in negative light and in 2010 the DPP specifically ordered all its civil servants to stop buying and advertising in The Nation newspaper (Daily Times/Malawi Today, 2012).

Many argue that the move was aimed at silencing his critics. In November of the same year, Mutharika signed into law Section 46 of the penal code. The law, which was an amended version, empowered the Minister of Information to ban any publication that disseminated information which was deemed not to be of ‘public interest’ (Freedom House, 2012). The chairperson of the Media Institute of Southern Africa (Malawi Chapter), Anthony Kasunda, tried to plead with the government asking it to revoke the law but he was not successful.

The government also banned The Weekend Times due to “its failure to register with the National Archives”. However, after a court intervention the paper resumed its publication. Many journalists practised self-censorship for fear of government’s threats. DPP party zealots who thronged the airports also created an uncomfortable environment for journalists. They could not freely ask Mutharika some sensitive questions for fear of being booed and harassed by the party supporters.

Upon becoming Malawi’s leader early 2012, President Joyce Banda demonstrated her commitment to promoting human rights as she led members of parliament in repealing some unpopular laws. One such law was what was being referred to as the draconian medial ban law implemented during Mutharika’s regime. Members of parliament massively voted against the law and the media hailed them for this development. However, recently journalists have expressed concern over the President’s tendency of using ‘press rallies’ (Nyasa Times, 2013). Every time she comes back from abroad, journalists have to interview her right in the presence of her party supporters who hurl insults at them whenever they feel like the journalists are asking ‘difficult’ questions.

Earlier on, the president appointed MBC’s Director General and this, as some quarters argued, compromises the independence of the appointee in executing his duties. They say the appointee will be forced to dance to the tune of the ruling People’s Party (PP). In addition, they say it will be very hard for MBC’s board members to independently monitor the performance of the Director General owing to the fact that he was chosen by the head of state. One private lawyer, Justin Dzonzi, argued that the powers of the president are limited to appointing the board of directors. “… her decision may be legally challenged by the affected party by way of judicial review process. If the court finds that the President didn't have the power to fire the former director and hire the current director, it may be quashed accordingly," he said (Gondwe, 2012).

In mid-January 2013, consumer rights activist John Kapito led Malawians in taking to the streets to protest against rising cost of living standards as a result of the devaluation of Malawi’s currency. While many applauded the PP government and Joyce Banda in particular for ensuring peaceful demonstrations, a lecturer at The University of Malawi (Chancellor College), Dr Jessie Kabwila Kapasula, argued otherwise. She said the government tried all tactics to stop the demonstrations through propaganda on MBC and other privately-owned media (Nyasa Times, 2013). A 15-minute episode dubbed ‘zionetsero’, literally meaning demonstrations, aired on MBC airwaves. The play poked fun at Kapito (the organiser of the demonstrations) calling on him to use his energy to climb Mulanje Mountain (one of Malawi’s mountains) as opposed to influencing the youths to participate in protests. The production ended without mentioning characters and the sponsor (Malawi Voice, 2013).

In 1994 Muluzi raised the expectations of Malawians who believed that unlike his predecessor he could be instrumental in promoting press freedom because of the enabling democratic environment that he was operating in but unfortunately he did not leave an impressive mark.

Mutharika started off well but the last part of his reign was characterised by dictatorial tendencies which threatened freedom of the press.

Could Banda be the first Malawian leader to make an independent press a reality? Time will tell.

Internet sources 1. Daily Times/Malawi Today. 2012. Government threatens civil servants who read and buy 'The Nation'. [Online]. Available: [Accessed 18 March 2013]. 2. Freedom House. 1998. Malawi: Freedom in the World. [Online]. Available: [Accessed 18 March 2013]. 3. Freedom House. 2012. Malawi: Freedom in the World. [Online]. Available: [Accessed 21 March 2013]. 4. Freedom House. 2013. Malawi: Freedom in the World. [Online]. Available: [Accessed 21 March 2013]. 5. Gondwe, G. 2012. Malawi: Lawyer faults Banda on MBC appointment. [Online]. Available: [Accessed 22 March 2013]. 6. Malawi Voice. 2013. Anti-January 17 Demonstrations Comedy on MBC TV: Portrays organisers as thieves. [Online]. Available: [Accessed 21 March 2013]. 7. Media Law Handbook for Southern Africa: Freedom of the Press. Date not specified. 1:166. [Online]. Available: [Accessed 21 March, 2013]. 8. Nyasa Times. 2013. Malawi academic Kabwila says wrong to hail President Banda for peaceful demos. [Online]. Available: [Accessed 22 March 2013]. 9. Nyasa Times. 2013. Malawi journalists unhappy with presidential ‘press rallies’. [Online]. Available: [Accessed 22 March 2013]. 10. Reporters Without Borders. 2004. Reporters Without Borders Annual Report 2004 – Malawi. [Online] Available: [Accessed 19 September 2013] 11. Republic of Malawi (Constitution) Act. 1994. [Online]. Available: [Accessed 21 March 2013].