Reporters Without Borders wrote to Malawian President Bingu wa Mutharika today condemning the “appalling climate” for the news media following a statement from the president’s office directly accusing and threatening certain media and journalists.
The organization points out that Malawi registered the biggest fall of any country in a single year – 67 places – in the latest Reporters Without Borders press freedom index, plunging from 79th in 2010 to 146th in the index published in January.
This is the letter:
President Bingu wa Mutharika
Office of the President
Paris, 20 March 2012
Subject: Situation of journalists and freedom of information in Malawi
Dear President Mutharika,
Reporters Without Borders, an international organization that defends freedom of information, is shocked by the appalling climate for journalists in Malawi which the president’s office and the government are currently fostering.
The accusations you have made against the news media and the uncompromising and often harsh language you use against them has the effect of stigmatizing them and giving the impression that you regard journalists as your worst enemies.
In a statement issued on 9 March, the president’s office warned reporters, editors and human rights defenders of the risk they would run if they continue to “distort statements” and “insult” the president, fomenting “unnecessary panic” among Malawians and bringing “anarchy” to the country.
Without producing any evidence, the statement accused some editors and reporters of being paid to do this by the opposition. It also condemned certain phone-in programmes in which members of the public are free to express their views about the country’s politics.
Two days later, Frank Mwenefumbo, the ruling Democratic Progressive Party’s National Director for Youth, called on Malawians to stop buying, reading and advertising in newspapers critical of the government. In 2010, the government imposed a ban on advertising in newspapers owned by Nation Publications Limited (which include The Nation, Weekend Nation, Nation on Sunday and Fuko).
The head of the Malawi chapter of the Media Institute of Southern Africa (MISA) has been receiving threats from unidentified persons since 12 March, two days after MISA issued an official reaction to the statement by the president’s office.
We would like to point out to you that the barely-veiled threats that are being made, targeting certain media in particular, will have the effect of poisoning still further the climate of mutual mistrust that exists between the various parties.
This type of reaction is not the responsible behaviour one expects from a government’s most senior officials, who have a duty to protect the freedom of expression that the constitution guarantees for all citizens, including journalists. It jeopardizes pluralism and creates a climate of fear that encourages self-censorship.
We also think it was inappropriate for the statement by the president’s office to invoke Section 3 (2) of the Flag, Emblems and Names Act. It is normal that journalists sometimes ask annoying questions. They do it to get a debate going. This should not be confused with a desire to destabilize the government. The terms used in Section 3 (2) are vague and could lead to misuse of a law adopted in 1967 and now incompatible with the 1995 constitution, which guarantees freedom of expression (Section 35) and media freedom (Section 36).
Certain media have recently taken to referring to you as the “Big Kahuna” but many journalists have pointed out that this term is not in any way insulting or demeaning and therefore offers no grounds for the wave of angry reactions.
Reporters Without Borders reminds you that if members of the government want to defend themselves against criticism, they have every right to do so in a variety of ways, including submitting a complaint to professional bodies such as the Media Council of Malawi.
We therefore deplore these recent developments and we urge you to respect freedom of expression and media freedom in Malawi. We call for an end to the threats against journalists, whether by officials or individuals, and for the implementation of policies that ensure the safety of media personnel and respect for their work.
We trust that you will appreciate the importance of our appeal.
Photo : President Bingu Wa Mutharika (Alexander Joe / AFP )