I beg your pardon, my Lady!

Hon Folks, did Judge Esmie Chombo really issue a blanket threat to bar the entire media fraternity from covering the Cashgate cases before her court just because someone publishing on social media misrepresented what transpired in court?

What does that threat of collective punishment say about how the Honourable Judge of the High Court thinks about folks in the media?

Journalists have been treated badly by the President, the police, cadres of various political parties and now, they have to shake like a leaf as they cover Cashgate in case someone puts fake news again on social media. They will all be thrown out?

I hate to say this kind of thinking is steeped in the argument that the right to free press isn’t absolute, which is true. What isn’t true is that because it’s not absolute then it’s a mere privilege—the sorry status it had during the Kamuzu’s era.

The other day an OPC official, incensed by uncomplimentary coverage of Public Sector Reforms Programme, at the flick of the finger sent reporters marching out of a performance check conference. It doesn’t matter really at the Capital Hill that barring the media is tantamount to denying the people access to public information.

The public will probably get to know about the status of public sector reforms when performance rating is genuinely at 85 percent. Not now, when the mess is reflected in delayed salaries, incessant reports of fraud and corruption, strained labour relations and lack of transparency and accountability resulting in poor returns from the capital invested in development programmes and projects.

From the days of Kamuzu, government has treated the media as fire, a partner when it tells the story government wants people to hear and an enemy when it exposes the truth that government wants hide.

I guess this is why it took 22 years for a reluctant government to enact an enabling law for sections 36 and 37 of the Constitution which provide for freedom of the press and the right to access to public information.

God knows how long it will now take for the much-waited for Access to Information (ATI) Act to take effect. The regulator, Malawi Human Rights Commission (MHRC) has found itself entangled in a bureaucratic cobweb in its quest to work with the ministries of Information and Justice in putting up the ATI system.

But with due respect to the powerful in the three arms of government—Executive, Legislature and  Judiciary–who treat the media  as a nuisance the country can do without, there’s no meaningful participatory democracy nor successful decentralisation programme without a vibrant independent press to give the people the information they need to make informed decisions.

There’s no denying that the culture of secrecy and denial allowed corruption to metamorphose into Cashgate which drained more than K230 billion from public coffers between 2009 and 2015 alone. .

More worrisome is the fact that while government continues to behave as if it alone has solutions to problems rocking the country, Cashgate appears to be spreading to the districts, towns and cities where a substantial amount of money is allocated without strengthening internal systems for ensuring transparency and accountability.

A probe by Global Fund which has staked 1.2 billion USD in the fight against HIV/Aids, tuberculosis and malaria, found that while there’s rampant pilferage of the donated drugs from public health facilities, the prevailing laws are too porous to net the bad guys in government who ransack public health facilities. The few that are actually netted are either given a light sentence or acquitted thanks to the hurdles there are in prosecuting cases of theft by public servant.

For the status quo to change faster, government needs to allow the media space to do its work without let or hindrance. Success in our quest for development and improved living standards hinges on active participation of an informed public in decisions that affect their lives.

The media is there to keep the public informed. It should be allowed space to grow and get better at the task not treated like a nuisance the country can do without.

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