Being seen to be working is not working

The events of Wednesday at the just-ended Sectoral Conference on Public Sector Reforms called by the Public Service Reforms Management Unit (PSRMU) was another indication that the more things change, the more they stay the same.

In the ear of Access to Information and relevant backing rights and freedoms when it comes to access to information for citizens, it is shocking that the institution at the heart of changing people’s mindsets could stop the media from covering a matter of public interest like such as progress on reforms.

Like its predecessor, the Public Service Reforms Commission, this conference could have been held behind closed doors and if the unit wanted praise singing among themselves and implementers of the reforms, there are boardrooms for that at Capital Hill and the media would have been none the wiser.

Clearly, what the PSRMU wanted was a story that there has been a conference, to be seen to be working, but that was not what people wanted to hear.

This was an opportunity for the unit to disavow the report that reforms were on the deathbed since the unit was moved to the Office of the President and Cabinet.

The unit has missed an opportunity to back the claim that the reforms are at 85 percent success rate and it was an excellent opportunity to publicly reprimand and push those who are lagging behind to make it to 100 percent.

But it seems all PSRMU wanted was positive news and the media to wax lyrical when coming out of that conference room.

At this moment, it is only prudent to remind the team that such is the role of public relations, which they clearly lack going by the unceremonious ejection of one its major stakeholders in these reforms, the media.

It is unfortunate for the PSRMU to realise that they cannot dictate what is newsworthy to the media. Newspapers, radio stations and television stations (especially private) in the country are not the unit’s tools to use as they wish; there is advertising for that.

The media cannot be faulted for deciding what they believed was newsworthy and since the damage has already been done, it would be pointless to even begin a Journalism 101 tutorials and in particular ‘What is news?’ with the decision-makers at the unit.

But a timely reminder on the role of journalism would suffice for the next time such a conference is held and the public has knowledge of it. Firstly, and this might be bad news for the people at the reforms unit, journalists are loyal to the citizens first so by entering that conference room, the purpose is for the people to know, good and bad news.

It is in the public’s interest to know how the reforms at Agricultural Development and Marketing Corporation (Admarc), for example, are progressing because this is a public institution. Journalism’s first obligation is to the truth as such if one parastatal or the unit itself lies about the progress of the reforms, journalists will catch them in the lie.

Sadly for the unit, whatever information would be provided in the form of sugarcoated reports will have to be verified because that is an element of journalism. Lucky for the unit, this verification might not happen right there and then but it will happen. It is journalism’s role to act as a platform for public criticism, the unit might not like it but it will be published.

The media is there to act as a watchdog over those in power, be it the Public Service Reforms Unit or any agency of the State in whatever capacity. In its watchdog role, the media is a representative of the majority without a voice, those Malawians in the rural areas who might not know what the reforms are all about.

Unless the PSRMU believes the reforms are not about the people, then well and good. But as long as the unit continues to occupy an office at Capital Hill and its officials eat and sleep everyday enabled by the money coming from taxpayers, the media will be there unfortunately for them.

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