It is very important that politicians especially those in government tame their tongues. If they don’t they risk paying through the nose. Worse still, they expose the public broadcaster, Malawi Broadcasting Corporation (MBC), to unnecessary litigation when their defamatory statements are aired on the national broadcaster. The law only protects the State President from being sued. All other people or institutions are not. When MBC has to pay litigants, it is the taxpayer who coughs the money.
During the transition to multiparty politics, former president the late Hastings Kamuzu Banda, among other things, called the late Aleke Kadonaphani Banda (AKB) as wabodza (a liar) at a rally he first addressed in Luchenza. Kamuzu went on to repeat the statement at other rallies as he vehemently campaigned against the multiparty dispensation. MBC broadcast all the speeches. AKB successfully sued MBC for defamation. Several more people have also successfully sued MBC for broadcasting malicious utterances by government politicians. The managers at the public broadcaster do not learn from such mistakes because they are not personally hurt when MBC pays out huge sums for damages. This is because the money the public broadcaster pays out to litigants is from you and me.
Just recently, President Peter Mutharika alleged that after the former president, the late Bingu wa Mutharika suffered a cardiac arrest and was rushed to Kamuzu Central Hospital, his wife Callista Mutharika, only showed up at the hospital six hours later. APM further alleged that Callista did not go to the hospital earlier because she was busy transferring property from the State House to Area 10. MBC aired all these damaging statements live. I have no idea about whether Callista has already dragged MBC to court for this but this is a clear case which MBC would have problems defending in court. APM can afford to be careless because the law protects him. But not MBC.
Now it is Minister of Local Government and Rural development Kondwani Nankhumwa who has been personally sued for his loose tongue. Nankhumwa alleged that Kasungu Municipality chief executive officer Stewart Ngoka and Nkhotakota district commissioner Felix Mkandawire were sent on forced leave because they were allegedly involved in corruption. Nankhumwa made the statement during the commemoration of the African Day of Decentralisation in Lilongwe. We have not heard from Mkandawire but pray that he has not also sued for defamation although he is entitled to claim for damages unless he was indeed involved in corruption. Nankhumwa could easily have avoided defaming the two officers.
Ngoka is, meanwhile, demanding a cool K50 million from Nankhumwa for the statement. Nankhumwa now has the difficult task of proving that Ngoka was indeed involved in corruption. I can only guess that Mkandawire is not also taking it lying down.
Unfortunately, it is you and me—the taxpayers who fund the public broadcaster—that will cough the money. It is most unfortunate that some politicians do not learn from past mistakes for which others have heavily paid. Government could have used this money for other issues such as buying drugs or constructing roads.
This hemorrhaging of government resources is the reason donors describe direct budgetary support (to Malawi through Account Number One) as a leaking bucket. It is also the reason the development partners prefer to channel their assistance to Malawi through non-governmental organisations (NGOs). Unfortunately, the NGOs have proved to be equally unhelpful. In the end, it is the ultra poor who are the biggest victims in this vicious circle.
Politicians, especially those in government, should know that when they make statements that are damaging to others, they expose government to avoidable lawsuits. It is possible to woe the electorates for their votes without mudslinging political opponents. Malawians have now come of age and what they want from politicians when they throng their rallies is not to hear how they will drug their opponents in the mud but what they will do once elected. The political violence we have seen during the past few months is proof that we still have a long way to go to embrace and let alone nurture intra- and inter-party democratic values.