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Collaboration key to improve Malawi civic space

Peter Jegwa: there is need for strong collaboration between media, public institutions, and CSO’s

By Edwin Mauluka

Strengthened collaboration between media and civil society organisations (CSO’s) has been emphasised as the fundamental for the improvement of Malawi’s landscape on freedom of expression.

Key players in the advancement of freedom of expression made the call on Thursday in Lilongwe, during the consultative meeting organised by the Campaign for Free Expression (CFE), Youth and Society (YAS) and Centre for Human Rights and Rehabilitation (CHRR).

The platform brought together journalists, CSOs, and other key public institutions that promote human rights in Malawi who held conversations on areas of Strategic Litigation Against Public Participation (SLAPP), state of free expression in Malawi, as well as strategies for collaboration on legal, advocacy and research issues.

One of Malawi’s prominent journalists, Peter Jegwa said the gathering was an important platform that allowed them to reflect and share what is working well and put forward suggestions for intervention in areas that pose risk to media work and freedom of expression.

“It is important to remind each other of what the issues are when we are dealing with freedom of expression in Malawi. It is very easy to take things for granted that things are okay for the positives that we have. The positives that we have are in the form of progressive constitution that provides for the freedom of expression and freedom of the media and so on. But, we have also seen trends where these freedoms can be trampled upon.” He observed

For the working environment for journalists in Malawi, Jegwa noted that the situation “is not as free as we would have wanted to be” saying those exposing malpractices involving leaders in positions of power continue to face varied forms of threats.

“I am speaking to you now not knowing where one of my friends and colleague, Gregory Gondwe is. He is in hiding because his life is in danger because of his journalistic work. For me, in 2024 no one must be in danger for practicing journalism in Malawi. We thought we have come from far, and that by this time these things would not happen.” He said

For the landscape to improve, Jegwa emphasised the need for strong collaboration between media, public institutions, and CSO’s to help resolve existing differences and challenges that impede freedom of expression.

He also called on media to maintain professionalism in their work in order to avoid creating a room for state interventions.

Commenting on the situation for the CSO’s in Malawi, the executive director for YAS, Charles Kajoloweka said there are numerous threats from existing legal instruments as there are a number of people answering various charges in courts related to freedom of expression.

“Freedom of expression is a cornerstone of democracy. Media and civil society face similar challenges and we are seeing the shrinking of media freedoms but also the civic space. We are seeing restrictions on fundamental rights including freedom of expression through bureaucratic mechanism such as legislative interventions.” He said

He pointed out that the Electronic Transaction and Cyber Security Act of 2016, is being used to stifle freedom of expression while the NGO (Amendment) Act provisions pose threat for accountability organizations from monitoring good governance.

Kajoloweka explained that the NGO Act empowers authority to deregister NGOs deemed to be out of compliance with the law, prohibits NGOs from engaging in “politicking” (a term that is not defined), and provides potential imputed criminal liability for NGOs and their trustees, managers, and chief executives with penalties including fines and prison sentences of up to two years.

To safeguard the democracy and fundamental rights which are facing threat now, he underlined that collaboration will be the best option.  

“This meeting was very important and I hope that from these conversations, we will continue to build solidarity to ensure that we collectively defend fundamental rights such as freedom of expression and association.” Said Kajoloweka

“We must push back against weak legislation that is restrictive on fundamental rights including the right to freedom of expression. We must ensure that we hold duty bearers accountable, push back against these draconian legislative provisions to ensure that parliament reviews them. But all that require collaboration between civil society and the media, but most importantly, it is also intensifying engagement with government.” He added and hailed the CFE for helping stakeholders to identify issues of common interests which they can jointly pursue.

CFE project manager Thokozani Mbwana observed that the trend across SADC region, shows that issues of freedom of expression are becoming tough.

“We are seeing that a lot with bills that are coming into effect like NGO Act and Cyber Security Act. These are indicators that are showing us that there are worrying trends growing in SADC region and we are seeing that Malawi is one of those countries being affected.” Noted Mbwana

Mbwana: There is always power in numbers

Mbwana said the consultative meeting in Malawi has allowed CFE to engage with local actors to appreciate the work they do and identify ways to combat elements that stifle and shrink civic space.

While appreciating the resilience of Malawi CSO’s and journalists on issues arising from freedom of expression, Mbwana disclosed that CFE is ready to support collective efforts that create a better environment for the progression of freedom of expression.

“We might have different resources, access to things, and being able to share that with organisations and journalists in Malawi, is really important.” Said Mbwana

Currently, CFE is in partnership with YAS and CHRR, and it is expected that the collaboration will lead into a big network that includes other organisations, media houses and journalists.

“There is always power in numbers, and I think that’s what is really important. Creating a coalition, creating a network or partnership, allows all of us to be crued up on the same thing at the same time, and for us to preach the message at the same time with a lot more force than if it was just a singular packets of existing. Outside of having powers and numbers it is also ability to share resources, knowledge and information. One group within the network experiencing something can communicate that to everybody else and knowing that you are not alone within these experiences also helps ability to do your work.” Emphasised Mbwana

CFE is a non-profit organisation based in South Africa, dedicated to protecting and expanding the right to free expression for all in Southern Africa. The organisation has expanded its work to five countries; Eswatini, Botswana, Zimbabwe and Malawi.

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