Taming the barking watchdog - The Nation Online

Taming the barking watchdog

Hon. Folks, what does it take to get positive publicity in the media? Throughout his tenure, APM has grappled with this question to the extent that on return from the United Nations General Assembly in New York, he literally begged for it.

It appears the folks in government who claim to be media experts have no clue on how to manage media relations. They mislead the President on MBC, effectively reducing the tax-payer funded broadcaster to a propaganda mouthpiece, short-changing us all in the process.

To woo the media to his side, APM started by inviting some editors and media managers to Sanjika Palace for a presidential briefing at which press kits were issued with nothing but K50 000 handouts stashed inside.

He became bitter and confrontational when that bombed on him, openly justifying government’s rabid monopolisation of MBC by arguing that the opposition had all the private media houses which say nothing good about government at its beck and call.

Kamuzu Banda viewed the media much the way as people view fire—good only as a servant under strict control. Under Kamuzu the media was there to “rally the people behind their beloved Ngwazi, the mighty MCP and the government.” Doing anything outside that constituted “irresponsible journalism” and woe unto any journalist who fell from grace.

Under the multiparty system, the right to free press is a constitutional provision but not even one of the four presidents we have had so far—Bakili Muluzi, Bingu wa Mutharika, Joyce Banda and now Peter Mutharika—have subscribed to the thinking that free press is there to give the public information with which to make informed choices in their day-to-day lives.

Instead, they have all seen the press as the keeper of positive publicity, a valuable asset in politics which they must have by hook or crook.

Conversely, they have all seen negative publicity, not as a reflection of the reality of our time but as something the press deliberately deploys to give leverage to enemies the opposition.  It’s as if government’s failures automatically translate into opposition’s successes.

Over the years, politicians have tried to bribe journalists with brown envelopes and other favours, tweak media laws, issue a ban on government adverts and demonise reporters or media houses at political rallies. They have used the police to arrest journalists and they have used party youths to intimidate or rough up journalists, all in the futile effort to persuade the media to see things their way.

The one thing they have not tried is using integrity to tame the watchdog. They expect positive publicity even when they fail to deliver on their campaign promises. They indulge in corruption and wasteful spending, they abuse office, they divide the nation along ethnic or regional lines and yet they still expect positive publicity.

We have been in the multiparty system of government for 23 years without much to show for it, we are off the mark on our Vision 2020, our gross domestic product (GDP) per capita is among the lowest in the world and a growing number of our people have lost the capacity to feed themselves and are instead perennially dependent on handouts.  Less than 10 percent of the population is connected to the Escom grid—the lowest in the entire Sadc region—yet we are half the day in darkness every day.

As elections are approaching, gatherings attended by opposition leaders political leaders are turned into battlefield yet the police sit and watch just because the perpetrators are sacred cows from the ruling side.

The entire Lhomwe belts—Mulanje, Thyolo, Phalombe and Chiradzulo—is gripped by fear of the so-called blood-suckers and innocent people are lynched to death while the President and his government are yet to do anything tangible to quell the madness. Yet the expectation is positive publicity from the media. Ouch, my foot!

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