TALKING POINTS FOR HIS EXCELLENCY PROF. ARTHUR PETER MUTHARIKA PRESIDENT OF THE REPUBLIC OF MALAWI ON MEETING WITH MEDIA OWNERS AT KAMUZU PALACE, LILONGWE
THURSDAY, 21 JANUARY, 2016
1. I know that you cannot feel the way I feel. But I am very pleased to meet you today. I have always wanted to meet and interact with you because we all have a common mission – to develop this country together.
2. I thought we needed to meet and share our expectations so that we can move together in driving this country forward. This is our country, and the only country we have. You have expectations on this Government. I am pleased to listen. Government has also expectations on your role in this country.
3. I am aware of the immediate expectations you have for Government to pass the Access to Information Bill. This Bill has generated a lot of excitement, expectations and even propaganda against the Government. I have not even noted that our development partners are using it as another conditionality of donor aid although it was not the reason why they stopped aid. Other countries without this Bill are receiving budgetary support. Of course no media has been critical enough to question this change of goal posts!
4. But the point is: I have consistently said we will pass the Bill into law, and we will. Let me repeat that we are not going to pass the Bill to appease anyone, or because we are bowing down to any pressure. We will make this Bill into Law because i believe it is good for the country; and because it is good for access to information to be legally protected and regulated. This Bill is going to be a law for all Malawians, and not just for the media. Therefore, it must be a fair and good law for everyone. But we need to allow the process of law formation take its full course.
5. Most of the Malawians who reflect where we are coming from admit that this Bill has serious problematic beginnings. It began as a Private Member’s Bill about 12 years ago. Its advocates sidelined and bypassed Cabinet and it was taken to Parliament without involvement of the Executive. This was the first problem. Unfortunately, that created the impression in others that it was an anti-Government law. Some thought the idea was good but the procedure was wrong and it was rejected by Parliament. We tried to make a law without its policy. After being thrown out of parliament, its original version was changed and Government was now engaged. Most of you here know that it has been a long journey.
6. We must appreciate that it was not easy for Government to start owning wholesale a bill which began by sidelining it, and thinking as if it was getting at Government as the culprit and wrongdoer rather than its owner and driver. In fact, some of the initial clauses reflected this problem. But like a parent, Government accepted and started owning the process of the Bill and providing guidance. We need to reflect and appreciate this background every time we are engaged in a dialogue around this Bill. It helps to look at the issue on either side.
7. Now, I am a democrat and we have nothing to hide. I committed in the DPP manifesto to get this Bill passed because I believe that a good Access to Information Bill is good for Malawi. We have moved to formulate the policy and we have taken the Bill to Cabinet for the first time. Should your Cabinet gloss over inconsistencies in the intended Law just because everyone is pressurising us? Will you not be the first people to say we made a bad law when the problems begin to surface? Should we overlook addressing the anticipated challenges that will face implementation because the media fraternity and donors are giving the Government of Malawi ultimatums? Well, you can advise me.
8. But we thought, the Bill needs to be allowed to go through the whole process any law takes. We are doing everything in good faith. How can a responsible Cabinet approve a bill which has Sections such as:
6(2) “Any law enacted after the commencement of this Act which restricts the rights and obligations provided for in this Act, shall have no effect.”
3(1) “This Act shall apply to information in the custody or under the control of any public body, relevant private body or other information holders listed in the Schedule hereto regardless of whether such information came into existence before the commencement of this Act.”
And today, you, the Media Owners are saying I should in fact use my executive powers to reject the version of the Bill which went to Cabinet! At the same time you are saying government should pass the Bill now! Which is which?
9. Anyway, the Ministry of Justice and Constitutional Affairs has finalised the review and will refer to the Cabinet Committee. Anyway, so much about the Access to Information Bill. Let’s get back to broader media issues.
10. I do not believe, that in a modern democracy, anyone can govern the state or develop any country without the support of the media. That is why I want to ensure that my Government remains a friend of the media. I believe in the media. I have confidence in you the media.
11. You are the fourth arm of Government because you influence decision-making processes, providing checks and balances across the Executive, the Judiciary and the Legislature.
12. You are the social institution that writes first the script of history. You begin the making of history. You shape the thinking and the mindset of generations of this country. And when I see reporters who enjoy speaking negatively and mocking their own country, I ask: how do you want your children to think of your country?
13. In every Election, you are the last voice that determines where to incite the people into chaos and to keep the people sober. As far as I am concerned, you did a commendable job to maintain the truth and keep the nation calm. Some undemocratic forces tried to frustrate the whole electoral process even if it meant creating civil chaos just to make sure that I should not be sworn in. But it was Zodiak that first said zachitika ndipo mumvera kwaife and they first announced that Peter Mutharika was winning. My point is, you have saved this nation at critical times.
14. But your job is not over yet. You and I know! That one major reason why we are slow to develop in Malawi is our collective mindset, the way we think! Actually, we don’t have as serious problems as we think. Our first problem is that we are the problem. We need a revolution of the mindset. There will never be any change unless we change. And I know that the media has the capacity to change our mindset. You have this weight of national duty on your shoulders.
15. Most of you are in private sector and it is my wish that your business industry prospers. I want you to prosper, and we must find ways of ensuring that the media industry prospers. I know that there are sometimes challenges like printing materials, broadcasting equipment and so on.
16. In fact, I am often excited to see that almost the entire media industry is owned by local investors. This means there are issues we must stand together as Malawians to protect the interest of the people.
17. I have never seen any headline that interrogates, let alone contradicts, some international critics of the government. What International critics say is biblical to the media in Malawi. Nobody really questions in order to tell Malawians the truth and take this country into the direction we want. Is this how things should be?
18. I do not ask you to sing praise poetry for me, or my party. No! But I entreat you to support your Government, lobby for your country, and to stand by your country, even to defend your country. I do not ask you to praise me or Government. But I ask you as media to be positive about your country. Do not show delight only when something goes wrong in this country.
19. I ask your media houses to inspire hope rather than spread hopelessness. We cannot move forward with a hopeless people. If we are pessimistic because we are stuffed with negative perspectives and coverage, we are done! I am not saying Malawi is a heaven and that everything is alright. But I am asking for encouraging coverage. I do not ask that we inspire hope because everything is well. Hope is that cloud of fire that lights our way forward in any exodus of a people. It is when you are surrounded by mountains of challenges on every side, when you are pursued by fear, and faced by the sea of doubts – that is when you need hope.
20. Let me cite one example. As Government, we have spoken on record that this country is rich with a lot of mineral wealth. Believe it or not, the route of direct investment is bound to turn this country around forever. But somehow, not many are interested in this news. Marketing our country to the world over is not a priority for many newsrooms.
21. One thing that bothers me most, is the intent of some media houses as regards acceptance of the mistakes they make. On many occasions they have written or broadcasted wrong stories about me and the government, and when we ask them to correct or retract, they either refuse or accept verbally but do nothing about it. I have many examples to this, including the incorrect story that a man died of Ebola in Kasungu; my speaking at the International Conservation Gala in USA; and that a man died of hunger in Mzimba, just to mention a few. We approached them with the truth, but they chose to keep quite. But the same media houses rush and put up a withdrawal or correction when it comes to other people’s stories, other than government.
22. And one more thing. As patriotic Malawians, you have the duty to socialise Malawians and transmit the right values in the people. Help me to cultivate values of patriotism, integrity and hardwork. I know that the media has the power to do this! Help us to cultivate the right core values in every heart of every Malawian.
23. You and I know the media has a range of functions. Be it surveillance, informing, entertainment, linkage, interpretation and socialisation. In my assessment, your media houses have performed the four duties of surveillance, informing, entertaining and linkage very well. But the functions of critical interpretation and socialisation of values are almost absent in much of the media content. This is a challenge that I want to put to you!
24. Then we have a challenge with media ethics. In a mature democracy, I believe the media should police its ethics and discipline itself. You must be your own watchdog. I know that the media in Malawi does not write about itself; it does not criticise itself. As I speak, a lot of organisations (including international organisations) are worried about the conduct and integrity of some reporters but there is no reporter who can make that a headline – just to illustrate the point about responsibility and accountability. But the media cannot be policing everyone, holding everyone accountable without policing itself, and holding itself accountable. This is a challenge we need to resolve.
25. Accountability is the foremost principle of democracy. The fundamental principle of democracy is that everyone must be accountable to someone else, and only God is accountable to no one. At best, we must be accountable to our systems.
26. I know you have functioning systems and structures in place. You all have very brilliant policies in your media houses. But are they effectively followed in your newsrooms? You have the Media Council of Malawi and MISA Malawi. But do your regulatory frameworks tighten media ethics effectively? We don’t want Government to interfere with your day to day work, but we want a body like Media Council to function smoothly and effectively as the Law Society of Malawi or the Medical Council of Malawi. Government has the right to expect a responsible media that takes both our democracy and development forward.
27. If you are facing financial roadblocks, can we explore ways of empowering you to do your work independently? Maybe you should form a task force among yourselves that can explore further and devise concrete proposals and negotiate with Government accordingly. Let me emphasise that we have no intention to control you. In fact, I am interested in empowering your independence and your professionalism to ensure that we have a highly responsible media in Malawi.
28. As you can see, there are many matters of national building that we need to engage on. This meeting may just be the beginning of a critical dialogue between us. But, I thank you for you coming. I have carefully listened to your concerns, and let us keep listening to each other. That is how we build national unity and democracies.
I thank you for listening.