I would like to welcome to this reception tonight the National Press Club, the Media Institute of Southern Africa (Malawi Chapter) and all others connected with the media as we lead up to World Press Freedom Day on 3 May. The theme of this year’s World Press Freedom Day is “Safe to Speak: Securing Freedom of Expression in All Media”. In particular, this theme highlights the issues of safety of journalists, combating impunity for crimes against freedom of expression, and securing a free and open internet as the precondition for safety online.
But before we look at this theme further, I would like us all to take a moment to remember those journalists around the world who have been killed, injured or kidnapped simply because of the work that they were doing. I would like also to remember Elizabeth Banda, who worked at Nation Publications before her recent untimely death. And my neighbour and colleague Anthony Livuza, who passed away last week. I selected Anthony for a UK Government Chevening Scholarship when I was last posted here to Malawi and so I am particularly saddened by his passing.
UK a Strong Supporter of Freedom of Expression
The UK government is a strong supporter of freedom of expression. Indeed, freedom of expression on the Internet is one of the Foreign Office’s global thematic human rights priorities. A free media and freedom of opinion and expression are integral to ensuring that citizens can exercise their full democratic rights. Freedom of expression is fundamental to building democracy. Citizens must be allowed to discuss and debate issues, to challenge their governments and make informed decisions. Journalists, bloggers, media organisations and individuals must be allowed to operate and to express themselves freely and safely and within international standards.
Governments need to respond to legitimate aspirations with reform, not repression. Encouraging an open and effective press serves to improve the environment for long-term social, political and economic stability and development.
When there are debates about the media, they often focus on the role of the media and its responsibilities. The balance between freedom of expression and opinion and ethical reporting is a constant and evolving debate. That debate has been spotlighted most recently in the UK with the Leveson Inquiry. In 2011 the Leveson Inquiry was established to look in to, as one of its two main objectives: “the culture, practices and ethics of the press, including contacts between the press and politicians and the press and the police; it is to consider the extent to which the current regulatory regime has failed and whether there has been a failure to act upon any previous warnings about media misconduct.”
The inquiry came on the back of increasing public concern over the methods by which the media obtained information and concerns over media intrusion into private lives, as well as the relationship between the media, politicians and police. Of particular concern was “phone hacking”, the illegal means by which some in the media accessed private phone data and phone messages in the pursuit of a story. Perhaps most notoriously, the phone of Milly Dowler, a schoolgirl who was kidnapped and killed in the UK, was found to be hacked after her death by a journalist working for the News of the World.
The debate following Lord Justice Leveson’s report revealed a keen sense in the UK of wanting to protect our long tradition of upholding freedom of expression and opinion. John Milton in the 1600s and later John Stuart Mills in the 1800s were leading proponents of that principle in the UK. Yet, many felt there needed to be stronger measures to ensure that journalism ethics and standards were upheld. And that the current Press Complaints Commission arrangements were not working.
The Leveson Inquiry Report tackled that issue head on. The Prime Minister welcomed many of the findings of the Report, but had serious misgivings about “crossing the Rubicon” of legislation to regulate the press. Other leading politicians had different views. Following cross-party discussions, there was agreement on a Royal Charter that should help deliver a new robust, but independent, system of press regulation in the UK, without the need for statutory regulation. Debate continues today, with media houses offering their own proposals supporting the principle of media freedom while recognising the importance of responsible journalistic methods.
Malawi is no stranger to similar debates. When I was last posted here 10 years ago, the strength or weakness of the Media Council of Malawi was a constant discussion point. The role of MACRA and whether it was, or had the potential to be, used for political control was another topic. Self-censorship by journalists, editors and media outlets was said to be commonplace. Malawi’s history over the last few years has demonstrated that those debates are still relevant. I welcome the formation of the National Press Club to help promote such debates and to consider how to protect freedom of expression, opinion and reporting while upholding ethics and journalistic standards.
I welcome also the recent engagement of H.E. The President Joyce Banda with media associations, including MISA. Such meetings perhaps recall the spirit of that well-known phrase “I disagree with what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it”. I am heartened by the President’s statement that the media has a friend in State House. I hope that such engagement will continue. I know from personal experience that I cannot expect the media to agree with what I say. I can become frustrated sometimes with the coverage and opinion. But that is democracy. Engagement is more likely to help get one’s message across than non-engagement and I know that reporters value not just the quote but the explanations behind policies and opinions.
This government has already made important strides to reverse Malawi’s recent decline in international freedom of the press rankings. The government’s resolve to lift the so-called “bad laws”, particularly Section 46 of the Penal Code, has rightly been applauded internationally.
Could the Government go further? Perhaps. I encourage the Government to consider the proposals that MISA has made to update Malawi’s laws in order to remove or modernise a legal framework that some would say runs counter to principles of media freedom. I welcome too the Minister of Information’s commitment to taking forward the Access to Information Bill. It would be a fitting tribute to Anthony Livuza if the Bill was passed. Malawi will have to consider what is workable and affordable. Journalists and campaigners cannot expect every Government document to appear on a website. The point of the Access to Information Bill is to support a dynamic society, which has the promotion of information and accountability as a key enabler for development. It should be part of a broader strategy to push information out to the people as a means to grow the nation, embracing the principles of Open Government.
Malawi Broadcasting Corporation
There is a wonderful opportunity also to change the perception of bias on political and social affairs of the Malawi Broadcasting Corporation. Too many successive governments have restricted and frustrated the capable journalists, editors and producers at MBC from delivering balanced coverage and debate. The underlying and sometimes overt threat of dismissal for an employee — whether from MBC or any other media outlet — through political pressure from any side surely has no place in today’s Malawi. Intimidation and threats are wrong and we will make our views known if we suspect it.
I therefore welcome the government’s engagement with MISA on public broadcasting reform and the commitment to uphold MBC’s independence. The lead up to next year’s tripartite elections offers an opportunity to prove that Malawi and MBC has embraced that principle.
Of course, there has to be a balance. The media itself, if it is to retain its credibility (and avoid expensive civil lawsuits), has an interest in promoting and enforcing ethics and high journalistic standards. It is in the media’s interest to show that self-regulation is effective; that quality control is a key principle of any media organisation; that the upkeep of journalistic standards and ethics are a central philosophy of the organisation; and that those standards are rigorously promoted and upheld. It means working against corruption within the media, delivering on-going professional training to journalists and, for editors and sub-editors, maintaining standards and leadership that journalists can aspire to. It also means taking time to better understand and develop expertise in an issue, for example around economics or business contract law, if ill-informed reporting is not to damage the country’s development or reputation. Perhaps the National Press Club has a role here too, ensuring peer support and pressure to uphold Codes of Standards and Ethics and inviting speakers to deliver tutorials on complex issues.
I recognise the challenges to achieving all of that. The Malawi media’s commercial base is fragile and prone to loss of revenue arising from disputes with the government of the day. Social media should be a key component of any media outlet’s strategy, yet it also challenges the traditional media to adapt if it is to survive. Journalism is a profession, yet too many journalists do not see their profession as a career able to support their families. The pressure to deliver the story quickly is huge.
International partners like the UK can support training, capacity building, sponsor radio programmes and place advertising in media outlets. We can defend the media when it is under pressure. We can make ourselves available to the media. I do not think we could or should directly subsidise media outlets. Far better that we help create the economic and knowledge environment that can engender and sustain a growing media sector. But perhaps we could do more to provide private sector development advice to the media, just as we do in other sectors for Malawi’s development.
Society should be in no doubt that without a vibrant media, there will not be a vibrant country. Malawi needs the media to flourish. It is integral to democracy, development and justice. Just ask Ms Chigolo what she thinks of The Daily Times and Gabriel Kamlomo after they highlighted her story, leading to her freedom from prison. Just ask the Malawi people whether they value The Nation highlighting potential fraud and corruption, or querying procurement decisions and processes around irrigation and other development contracts. Ask the rural people how they value MBC, Zodiac, Joy or community radios for raising the issues they care about, alongside Capital Radio and FM101’s more urban based coverage.
Ten years ago, one of my roles here was press spokesperson for the British government in Malawi. I also helped deliver some support to the media. I am glad to be able to say that in my opinion standards have improved, particularly in business and investigative journalism. The media sector is still fragile, and I sense that the media needs to deliver more relevant content in a more dynamic and exciting way to an increasingly young and worldly wise population. But with MISA, the National Press Club and other organisations, and hopefully with government support, the media has the ability to develop and to continue its leading role as defender and promoter of the nation’s interests.