Musings on press freedom

Good people, yesterday was World Press Freedom Day, the day we celebrate the sacrifices media practitioners make to keep human kind informed and an opportunity to lobby for broader space, resources and freedoms for their enlightening work to flourish.

In Malawi, the observance has become anything except unpredictable. It’s shifted to the nearest Saturday, a day for journalists to grab a thematic T-short for the commemoration, walk in defence of their rights ensrhrined in the Constitution, wave placcards carrying fmiliar messages, raise a voice in a debate over their liberties and duties, drink their all and dress up for the awards that some corporate captains have come to describe as the most chaotic of them all.

I will not dwell on the down side of the most important commemoration in the work of the unsung heroes working really hard to keep the human race informed.

Globally, media practitioners make lives better not only by performing their traditional role of informing, intertaining and educating their audiences, but also in pursuit of their watchdog role of whistleblowing, keeping those in power in check and setting the agenda for the good of the greatest number of people. Some call this serving the greater good, but journalism is some word economy, so this is simply ‘selflessness’.

This is why the World Press Freedom Day yesterday was not about journalists that have veered off the way paved by the great grandmas and granddads of the proffession that gives a voice to the voiceless, beats high walls to unearth the whole truth, reaches high places to deliver another point of view decisionmkers seldom hear from their inner circles and penetrates air-tight spaces to tell untold story so that no one is left behind.

The press freedom parade is not a guard of honour for a bulging brigade of self-styled journalists whose thoughts are confined in their pockets and wallets. They do not care about anyone,  but how much ill-gotten money they pinch and squeeze into their vaults.

Yesterday was a day for a few journalists who have remainremained true to the script and spirit of the proffession in which silence in the face of abuses is taking sides with the abusers, a trade in which silence of duty bearers speaks louder than any amount of words amplified. No comment is a comment, they say in my world where news is mostly about what the privileged people in power do not want the nosy to see, smell and tell.

It is to the good of this nosy cadre that we dedicate the annual press freedom event because their space is waning, being burgioned by heavyweights in steel gloves who ought to fear nothing if they have nothing to hide from the people they are elected to safeguard and uplift.

In Tanzania, just next door, a journalist has been missing for many months and his family-parents, children,  wife, workmates, neighbours, fans and the rest of the world–is groping in the dark to know his whereabouts, whether he is dead or alive and why he vanished this way.

Tanzania is not at war. Tanzania is free and President John Pombe Magufuli, a one-time messiah who is leading an onslaught on the media by gagging freedom to access public information and overpricing bloggers right to publish freely, has the whole State machinery and obligation to provide quick answers to questions over the disappearance of the journalist said to have been critical of the anti-free press government.

By keeping quiet on the disappearance of the journalist and allowing State-sponsored agencies to churn out overloads of propaganda to sanitise the mystery as just one of numerous cases still under investigation, Magufuli is knowingly or unknowingly creating a nation where no one is safe. He needs to magufulify the search for the missing journalist, speak out against criminal and ideological attacks on the media and make a tough statement, tougher than his famous demands for a government rsystem that benefits all.

A government that remains indifferent to the suffering of journalists and perpetuates a culture of gagging the media creates room for extremism that leaves no one safer.

Southern African states have worse problems to worry about and a sharp-nosed is not one of these foes, but a trusted partner in scaling up the change we want.

The World Press Freedom Day is really about conferring status on exemplars of professional excellence who must be free to do their job without fear or favour. n


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