Honourable Folks, the image of a female photojournalist helplessly entrapped in the vice-grip of a Goliath-like security officer, her face contorted in anticipation of the rough landing of a club-like fist, shall, for a while at least, serve as the bruised face of free press in Malawi.
Thoko Chikondi met her fate in the precincts of Parliament, the august House in which the honourable representatives of Malawians, make laws and check excesses in other two branches of government—the Executive and the Judiciary.
Some security officer felt that armed with a camera, Thoko posed threat to the security and had to be manhandled before she could shoot an up-close action picture for the front page. She was there to cover the presentation of a petition by John Kapito, the executive director of Consumer Association of Malawi.
As a journalist, Thoko belongs to the Fourth Estate—the press—which, by the dictates of the Constitution, must not only be free but must also be supported by the public sector in the pursuit of its constitutional mandate. Section 36 states: “The Press shall have the right to report and publish freely, within Malawi and abroad, and to be accorded the fullest possible facilities for access to public information.”
Thoko wasn’t just obscured from doing her job but was also assaulted. Why? Maybe giving coverage to Kapito whose petition had a litany of concerns about government’s extravagance in the year of austerity wasn’t perceived as good enough news.
But who said free press is about positive coverage of government business? Ever heard about the definition of news as the exposure of “something someone is trying to hide, the rest is advertisement”? As a journalist, Thoko’s fidelity was to the public, not Kapito or government. She had to cover presentation of the petition because the public have the right to know what government and Cama were doing in their name.
Thoko and her tormentor were strangers whose first encounter led to the assault. Therefore, it’s unlikely the two had standing umbrage at each other.
Rather, Thoko was assaulted for the press she represented. She told me there were just two journalists from newspapers at the time and the other one was male. A more difficult target for assault, you’d say. So, why should anyone feel duty-bound to persecute the media?
The answer lies in the irony of having the provision of free press in the Constitution which no administration since the advent of the multiparty system has embraced.
Kamuzu Banda was so averse to free press that he even restricted the entry of foreign journalists into Malawi, calling them spies ‘äkazitape.’ As for us, the local journalists, our role was defined for us by the politicians; namely to rally the people behind their Ngwazi, the party and government.
Muluzi promised Malawians the freedoms—including free press—that Kamuzu had denied them. Yet, when he assumed office, he worked hard curtailing the same freedoms he had promised the electorate. MBC wasn’t allowed to cover the opposition and staff could be dismissed en masse to enforce unpopular diktats.
Those of us who belonged to the independent media were demonised, arrested or beaten up by Young Democrats while the police were watching. It was during the time of Muluzi that the culture of inviting party officials to boo journalists at press conference was nurtured. His successor, Bingu wa Mutharika, just scooped and polished it to perfection.
He also ordered the government to stop advertising in the media he did not like and nodded when overzealous cronies ordered civil servants to stop buying and reading a paper perceived to be critical of the regime.
Joyce Banda may not be as harsh towards the media as her predecessor had been, but she, too, has so much hate for the media that she even declared it’s journalists who killed her predecessor and that, for her own health, she no longer reads the newspapers.
Those who doubt what impact such hostility by leaders can have on the psyche of some of their followers are better reminded that in 1994, 800 000 Rwandans were butchered by fellow Rwandans heeding a call of hate: kill the cockroaches!
In Malawi, the police driven by a passion to serve the government of the day, rained bullets on demonstrators protesting Mutharika’s leadership style, killing 20 in a day madness, July 20, 2011. The same police targeted journalists, beating them up and throwing tear gas canisters at them for simply being where the demonstrators were as required by their duty.
Any wonder some security officer wanted to play hero by assaulting Thoko? She is a photojournalist very much in love with her camera and she doesn’t rest until she tells the story in a picture that’s worth a thousand words. She is simply the face of free press!