Hon Folks, it’s time the honourable members were told, with due respect, that their stand on Access to Information (ATI) issue better be based on principle and not as a favour to the media.
The uncomplimentary stand some media houses have taken on MPs’ demand that the cash-strapped Treasury should make available a K5 million “soft” loan facility in fulfillment their condition of service have made some of the irate MPs hit back with an unsavoury question: why should they reward such media with ATI?
It’s a question that resonates with choreographed but hollow argument we have heard from President Arthur Peter Mutharika (APM) and other members of the Executive. They ask why should the media which, they claim, only sees and covers the negative side of government, be rewarded with more ammunition for its assault on their democratically elected government?
I would like to believe it’s partly a consequence of this passionate averse for the media that, rather than according it “the fullest possible facilities for access to public information” as stipulated in Section 36 of the Constitution, government is hell-bent to ensure that free press is actually stifled.
After a delegation from the media appealed to the President in March to help many people access media products by reducing taxes on media equipment and materials, government has responded by slapping a 16.5 percent VAT on newsprint.
If you asked me, the good reason is to increase the tax revenue but the real reason could be political, to make newspapers unaffordable, thereby reducing further the number of voters exposed to critical content.
With unemployment soaring amid unprecedented hunger and economic hardships worsening by the day, the last thing the APM administration would want for the 2019 elections is a critical, nosy media countering political propaganda with information government would really love to keep under lock and key.
Already, APM has strategically stashed cronies in the Malawi Electoral Commission and Macra. Chances are that independent electronic media will be heavily regulated, if not persecuted, as the campaign for 2019 elections heats up.
The aim could be to ensure State-run MBC—which is blatantly biased towards the party in power and does not even pretend to improve election coverage in tandem with the Communications Act, 1998—is the only major source of election news, especially for the rural folks who constitute 85 percent of the population.
Save for its unparalleled superb coverage of the interim period (between June 14, 1993 when 67 percent of the voters chose a change to a multiparty system of government and May 17, 1994 when Malawians voted in the first multi-party government), MBC has always been monopolised by the party in government.
It will be pushing it too far to expect any improvement in 2019. The opposition’s only hope for the voice to be heard is through independent media. Within this category, it’s the print media which, in addition to disseminating information has developed the capacity and sweet tooth for investigative journalism, the muckraking which truly exposes failure, power abuse, corruption and other malpractices those in power would like to hide from voters.
Rather than assuming that ATI would empower the media to be more irresponsible, why not assume that free access to public information would help minimise errors that come because of lack of information?
If, as representatives of the people, MPs don’t believe in providing an enabling law to the free press provision in the Constitution, they should still seriously consider passing a good, unadulterated ATI bill as an enabling law for section 37 which provides for the right to access to public information to “every person” including those who elected them into office.