I am… for freedom of the press, and against all violations of the Constitution to silence by force and not by reason the complaints or criticisms, just or unjust, of our citizens against the conduct of their agents.” Thomas Jefferson
It is always good when politicians pledge their commitment to protect media freedoms, especially in emerging democracies where such freedoms are often provided in theory but cannot always be guaranteed in practice. For Malawi, it is particularly interesting to have such assurances coming from the ruling DPP presidency given the part’s chequered record when it come to media freedoms in the country.
Addressing a political rally in Ndirande, Blantyre, DPP’s vice president for Southern Region, Kondwani Nankhumwa assured the media in the country that the Malawi government would protect media freedoms. Never mind that Nankhumwa was speaking at a political rally, not a government gathering, the crucial difference difficult political party in power and government is, unfortunately inconsequential in Malawi politics.
Quoted by Daily Times, Nankhumwa said:
“We want you to know that we appreciate the work you do. During the term of President Peter Mutharika, no journalist has been arrested; this shows that we appreciate the work that you are doing.”
Malawi is in campaigning mode as the May 2019 presidential, parliamentary and local government elections get closer. So Nankhumwa’s comments should in no small part be understood from this context. One should also understand Nankhumwa’s sentiments from the background that his comments came only days after MISA Malawi issued a statement demanding justice for journalists whose constitutional right to work freely in the country have been violated in the country and no culprit has been brought to book. This context is very important, especially having in mind Nankhumwa’s insistence that no journalist has been arrested during President Peter Mutharika’s term of office.
The Daily Times ran editorial arguing:
“… while we say thank you to the ruling party vice president for the Southern Region for such soothing words, we want to see his words reflected in deeds of ruling party politicians. We want to see journalists operating without looking over their backs.”
All good and understandable, even though the editorial missed the context of Nankhumwa’s assurances. But here is the main with Nankhumwa’s problem: media freedoms should not be at the mercy of politicians; media freedoms must be guaranteed and promoted by legal framework and necessary procedures must be in place to ensure that such laws are protected. The duty of political leaders is to ensure conducive legal framework and procedures to allow journalists to work independently and free of all forms of coercion.
These are the basics of democratic process; it is in autocratic states where media freedoms and civil liberties are at the mercy of those in power.
Politicians like Nankhumwa can be congratulated for making progressive assurances on a political podium. Yet, Matters of policy should not be discussed on the political podium – there are procedures for it. What are we going to do next time politicians use the same podium to promote populist policies that are not progressive? Democracy is about institutions, not individuals and that is the only way democracies ensure continuity as well as protection of democratic freedoms and civil liberties.