Why unethical journalists must be sued, fined & jailed

Professor Abiti Joyce Befu, MG 66 and MEGA-1; Alhajj Mufti Jean-Philippe LePossoin, SC (RTD); Mzee Mandela, MPNA; Nganga Maigwagwa, PSC (RTD), and I, the only Mohashoi in Malawi, are here in the Blantyre City, also known as the city of darkness, to fulfil a number of engagements.

We will not reveal where we are lodged because as the mighty Malawi Broadcasting Corporation (MBC) warns, Sapita Kawiri. This is the home of axe, zikwanje and mphopo wielding supporters of the ruling party.   We recall how on the eve police and city authorised July 20 2011 nationwide demonstrations and street marches armed party zealots threatened to exterminate all would-be demonstrators. On April 26 2018, the armed parade also took place, stopping some people from joining the April 27 demonstrations.

Our first engagement, here in the city of darkness, was yesterday when we joined our colleagues and fiends in celebrating World Press Freedom Day and discussing the future of journalistic self-regulation.

To qualify the freedom of expression that accompanied the change to multiparty democracy, we, as members of the Journalists Association of Malawi (Jama), agreed at Mt Soche Hotel in August 1994 to create a school of journalism. Lo and behold, the Malawi Institute of Journalism (MIJ) was created in 1995 and since then it has done tremendous work. Lo and behold, the Malawi Polytechnic established the first ever Bachelor of Arts in Journalism (BAJ) degree programme in 1999 and since then a good number  of graduates have emerged.  Lo and behold, private training institutes, colleges and universities have since joined the bandwagon. Today, almost every university has a journalism programme, with some universities unjustifiably duplicating courses, separating communication from journalism and journalism from media studies.

In the absence of a comprehensive journalism graduate tracer study, we can only say, a lot of graduates have been churned out since 1996, when MIJ held its first graduation ceremony in the Polytechnic Boardroom. Thom Chiumia, founding editor of the influential Nyasa Times, was one of the first such graduates.

Another product of the seminal 1994 Mount Soche conference was the formation of the Media Council of Malawi (MCM) to regulate journalistic performance and oversee the implementation of international ethics and standards of journalism practice. The Jama itself morphed into the Journalists Union of Malawi (Juma), whose mandate is to agitate for good working conditions for journalists.

By 1996, a Code of Ethics and Professional Standards was published.  The said Code of Ethics has since been taught in all journalism programmes and at workshops. The code has also been incorporated in the code ethics of election reporting, endorsed every five years by all media houses; in newsroom editorial standards and, even in all broadcasting licences issued by the Malawi Communications Regulatory Authority (Macra).

However, it is our position that self-regulation has failed and Malawian media and journalists need a second force to enforce the code of ethics and professional standards. It is our position that those journalists that flout journalism ethics do so deliberately.  They know the ethics of their job.

Those that teamed up to defame people during the 1999 elections as revealed by the Article XIX study knew the ethics and standards of their practice but they still went ahead to form a pro-UDF disinformation and defamation team supervised by a now dead former minister of information.  Macra knew these people and where they operated from but did nothing about them. In fact, after the elections nearly all the members of the disinformation team were promoted in their jobs or given more lucrative and authoritative positions in government. Some are today principal secretaries.

In short, the Malawi Government and Macra have been responsible for the poor performance of journalists in Malawi.  They have abetted, promoted and rewarded disinformation, fake news and journalistic mediocrity.

The Media Council of Malawi was there in 1999 and knew about the disinformation team but did nothing to stop it. It did not even pretend to condemn it verbally.  In the 2014 elections, the Media Council of Malawi was aware of a disinformation unit that used online and social media (mostly using Facebook) to discredit, defame and deform anyone who did not support the Democratic People’s Party (DPP).  The unit was researched and its members revealed to MCM. Despite having full knowledge and receiving complaints from some of the defamed people, the MCM did nothing.

Because the government and its agency, Macra, and the MCM have failed to regulate and oversee journalistic adherence to professional ethics, it’s now up to members of the public, politicians and other journalism well-wishers to take all unethical journalists to court and sue them for defamation. And if found guilty they should be punished through fines and jail terms if the laws so allow.

If a child cannot be disciplined through word of mouth, the rod will do the job.

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