Press Reform: Time to create an independent media watchdog for Media Organisations in Malawi

projector-64149_1280Who regulates the Media in Malawi?

Who is it that will confront  the many dodgy online (and some who are not online) publications that have been known to create false stories against public figures out of no-where? What code of conduct do they subscribe to? Who is it that they are answerable to? Are their writers trained journalists conversant with established journalistic inquiry methods? What standards do they observe when they go about crafting their menace? When they concoct their heresies – who can chastise them? Who gets to rebuke those who push out false material into the unsuspecting public in an everything-goes fashion?

I’ve not suddenly become pro-establishment. I’ve not suddenly woken up today and dreamily decided to attack press freedoms.What I’m asking after a long contemplation of the news coming out of Malawi News portals in recent months is what exactly constitutes press freedoms? Can writing a story that one knows is false, that one knows didn’t happen, or that one suspects couldn’t be true, all in an attempt to create a stir, or appease a financier, does that qualify as ‘press freedoms’?

The questions above need to be carefully considered for a good number of reasons.

Firstly, as many Malawians who follow the news will know, we have been misled quite a number of times by the news agencies, and various publications, over issues from president Joyce Banda’s dealings in office, to  the current president’s sexuality. It’s simply not fair, or sustainable, or even professional for such kind of rubbish-pit chicanery to continue to splatter the media. Think false or twisted stories against some Malawians, including Jessie Kabwila, and much recently against Thoko Banda and many others.

Those who write these stories will obviously have justifications for creating them. Any fool can do that. It takes a real professional to independently verify a story before presenting it as ‘fact’. It takes a real professional to separate fact from allegation. What is also interesting, especially in online news portals, is that in regards to most such false stories, as soon as the authors are confronted, they quickly backtrack and delete these stories – issuing an apology. But only after thousands of readers have already accessed the fabrications. After the damage has already been done. Often than not, the story leaves behind a record, a trail which can be used to unfairly taint a character – many years later.

It’s simply not sustainable for Malawi’s media organisations to operate like this. There has to be some basic standards and fair reporting.

Secondly, some of the Media organisations are owned by politicians. Or by people with direct affiliations to political parties and politicians. So, what they publish is invariably going to favour their patrons. Which is not always good, especially if they begin to unfairly attack other politicians or groups opposed to their patrons. Further, there are some media organisations in Malawi, which in an attempt to bring down an opponent will publish material that is false, or will twist facts to present a sensationalist picture that is not entirely true. One that does injustice to the individual concerned. Obviously this is not right, and you can not use ‘freedom of speech’ to justify such behaviour.

‘What about MACRA (Malawi Communications Regulatory Authority)?’ I hear you say. Can’t they regulate this environment? Isn’t that their job? Well, they have been described as ‘poorly managed‘ by the 2006-2007 Media Sustainability Index Report. They have been accused of pro government bias. In my view, MACRA is overburdened by other things. Their organisation is already stretched in dealing with issues such as tax evasion by telecom companies, unauthorised broadcasting by the same, and other tedious issues. They are not ideally equipped to scrutinise as many media outfits in the land to ensure that what is published is, firstly true, and secondly in line with the type of code of conduct I hereby propose. Further, if MACRA went about demanding integrity and quashing rumour and propaganda in online publications, such behaviour is likely to come across as anti-democratic, and may even qualify as censorship, simply because MACRA is a government institution.

‘You are advocating press Censorship’ I hear another say.

And why would I do that? If you’ve read this blog for any length of time, you’ll realise that I’m quite liberal in my thinking. I often publish material on accountability, fair and even distribution of wealth, anti-corruption and such themes. Why then would I suddenly become a chum of the powers that be, and advocate censorship? There’s a difference between on one hand propriety and abiding by professional standards that aim to preserve integrity and professionalism, and on the other hand censorship. Asking that publications must verify the truthfulness of a story before publishing it is not censorship. Instead, it is ensuring that fabricated rumour and other gooble-de-gook doesn’t pass-off as news. At its bare bones, I’m advocating a quality check.

I believe what the European Court of Human rights once said (Castells vs Spain): “Freedom of the press affords the public one of the best means of discovering and forming an opinion of the ideas and attitudes of their political leaders. In particular, it gives politicians the opportunity to reflect and comment on the preoccupations of public opinion; it thus enables everyone to participate in the free political debate which is at the very core of the concept of a democratic society”

Words which echoed Theodore Roosevelt, when he said ” Free Speech exercised both individually and through a free press, is a necessity in any country where people are themselves free.”

But this free political debate only works if the public opinion or the ‘free speech’ that is published is in fact true. It can’t work if the stories are false or fabricated with the intention of character assassination or otherwise.

What about the recent E-bill?

Well, it doesn’t go far enough, and critically it focusses the power in the hands of the government via MACRA, the regulator, which as I said above is restrictive. Like the current framework, it is not sufficient. What is needed instead is a framework run by an independent body with neither political nor neopatrimonial interests.

So what form will this new regulator take?

Well, assuming that we agree that the current state of play is not sustainable, we will probably also agree that self-regulation is not an option. Similarly, if  the likes of MACRA have been accused of interfering, or being pressured by the state to interfere with the media, then they are probably not the ones to front this.

Thus, taking a simplistic view, what I propose is a Malawi Media Monitoring Commission that will have a parliament sanctioned Professional Charter and Code of Conduct. Its role will be to uphold standards in the media and communications industry.

It’s not going to be that simple. Public Affairs Committee (PAC) will need to take an active role in formulating that code of conduct, and a public consultation will need to be launched, to ensure that views of ordinary Malawians are taken into account, and that the executive does not monopolise or influence the organisation.

Why all the hassle?

Because the role of a free press is to hold the government to account. It should not work the other way round. And you cannot have a free press if there are few or no standards being observed, or if the government attempts to stifle or gag the press via instruments such as the E-bill. Leaving the formulation of this important aspect of democracy to parliament alone can compromise its independence and thereby press freedoms.

The Commission will be led by a commissioner on a 2 year contract, appointed by a committee including members of PAC and some parliamentarians. In order to minimise costs, the office of the commissioner will have no more than 10 fully paid members of staff, whose duties will include advocating the merits of a free impartial and professional press, sensitizing the public about the code of conduct of the watchdog, running seminars for journalists and members of the media, investigating complaints, dealing with reports of false and fabricated stories, investigating false stories, imposing fines against unscrupulous media outlets, enforcement, and in particularly acute cases, proposing the prosecution of media organisations or their employees. It will operate separately from MACRA, although it will need to work with the police to ensure that the public’s faith in the regulatory structure is restored. Further, MACRA will be obliged to pass on any complaints of unfair reporting they receive to the new commission.

To me this sounds like a more functional and independent system with much better prospects of creating a media that is responsible, and that puts leaders to task, than the current framework. In any case, it prevents concentration of power in the arms of the executive or legislature.

Flipping the Corruption Myth

Flipping the Corruption Myth by Dr Jason Hickel, a lecturer at the London School of Economics and an adviser to /The Rules
– Corruption is by far not the main factor behind persisting poverty in the Global South.  Original article via Al Jazeera here

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Transparency International recently published their latest annual Corruption Perceptions Index (CPI), laid out in an eye-catching map of the world with the least corrupt nations coded in happy yellow and the most corrupt nations smeared in stigmatising red. The CPI defines corruption as “the misuse of public power for private benefit”, and draws its data from 12 different institutions including the World Bank, Freedom House, and the World Economic Forum.

When I first saw this map I was struck by the fact that most of the yellow areas happen to be rich Western countries, including the United States and the United Kingdom, whereas red covers almost the entirety of the global South, with countries like South Sudan, Afghanistan, and Somalia daubed especially dark.

This geographical division fits squarely with mainstream views, which see corruption as the scourge of the developing world (cue cliche images of dictators in Africa and bribery in India). But is this storyline accurate?

Many international development organisations hold that persistent poverty in the Global South is caused largely by corruption among local public officials. In 2003 these concerns led to the United Nations Convention against Corruption, which asserts that, while corruption exists in all countries, this “evil phenomenon” is “most destructive” in the global South, where it is a “key element in economic underperformance and a major obstacle to poverty alleviation and development”.

There’s only one problem with this theory: It’s just not true.

Corruption, superpower style

According to the World Bank, corruption in the form of bribery and theft by government officials, the main target of the UN Convention, costs developing countries between $20bn and $40bn each year. That’s a lot of money. But it’s an extremely small proportion – only about 3 percent – of the total illicit flows that leak out of public coffers. Tax avoidance, on the other hand, accounts for more than $900bn each year, money that multinational corporations steal from developing countries through practices such as trade mispricing.

This enormous outflow of wealth is facilitated by a shadowy financial system that includes tax havens, paper companies, anonymous accounts, and fake foundations, with the City of London at the very heart of it. Over 30 percent of global foreign direct investment is booked through tax havens, which now collectively hide one-sixth of the world’s total private wealth.

This is a massive – indeed, fundamental – cause of poverty in the developing world, yet it does not register in the mainstream definition of corruption, absent from the UN Convention, and rarely, if ever, appears on the agenda of international development organisations.

With the City of London at the centre of the global tax haven web, how does the UK end up with a clean CPI?

The question is all the more baffling given that the city is immune from many of the nation’s democratic laws and free of all parliamentary oversight. As a result of this special status, London has maintained a number of quaint plutocratic traditions. Take its electoral process, for instance: More than 70 percent of the votes cast during council elections are cast not by residents, but by corporations – mostly banks and financial firms. And the bigger the corporation, the more votes they get, with the largest firms getting 79 votes each. This takes US-style corporate personhood to another level.

To be fair, this kind of corruption is not entirely out-of-place in a country where a feudalistic royal family owns 120,000 hectares of the nation’s land and sucks up around £40m ($65.7m) of public funds each year. Then there’s the parliament, where the House of Lords is filled not by-election but by appointment, with 92 seats inherited by aristocratic families, 26 set aside for the leaders of the country’s largest religious sect, and dozens of others divvied up for sale to multi-millionaires.

Corruption in US is only slightly less blatant. Whereas congressional seats are not yet available for outright purchase, the Citizens United vs FEC ruling allows corporations to spend unlimited amounts of money on political campaigns to ensure that their preferred candidates get elected, a practice justified under the Orwellian banner of “free speech”.

The poverty factor

The UN Convention is correct to say that poverty in developing countries is caused by corruption. But the corruption we ought to be most concerned about has its root in the countries that are coloured yellow on the CPI map, not red.

The tax haven system is not the only culprit. We know that the global financial crisis of 2008 was precipitated by systemic corruption among public officials in the US who were intimately tied to the interests of Wall Street firms. In addition to shifting trillions of dollars from public coffers into private pockets through bailouts, the crisis wiped out a huge chunk of the global economy and had a devastating effect on developing countries when demand for exports dried up, causing massive waves of unemployment.

A similar story can be told about the Libor scandal in the UK, when major London banks colluded to rig interest rates so as to suck around $100bn of free money from people even well beyond Britain’s shores. How could either of these scandals be defined as anything but the misuse of public power for private benefit? The global reach of this kind of corruption makes petty bribery and theft in the developing world seem parochial by comparison.

But this is just the tip of the iceberg. If we really want to understand how corruption drives poverty in developing countries, we need to start by looking at the institutions that control the global economy, such as the IMF, the World Bank and the World Trade Organisation.

During the 1980s and 1990s, the policies that these institutions foisted on the Global South, following the Washington Consensus, caused per capita income growth rates to collapse by almost 50 percent. Economist Robert Pollin has estimated that during this period developing countries lost around $480bn per year in potential GDP. It would be difficult to overstate the human devastation that these numbers represent. Yet Western corporations have benefitted tremendously from this process, gaining access to new markets, cheaper labour and raw materials, and fresh avenues for capital flight.

These international institutions masquerade as mechanisms for public governance, but they are deeply anti-democratic; this is why they can get away with imposing policies that so directly violate public interest. Voting power in the IMF and World Bank is apportioned so that developing countries – the vast majority of the world’s population – together hold less than 50 percent of the vote, while the US Treasury wields de facto veto power. The leaders of these institutions are not elected, but appointed by the US and Europe, with not a few military bosses and Wall Street executives among them.

Joseph Stiglitz, former chief economist of the World Bank, has publicly denounced these institutions as among the least transparent he has ever encountered. They also suffer from a shocking lack of accountability, as they enjoy special “sovereign immunity” status that protects them against public lawsuit when their policies fail, regardless of how much harm they cause.

Shifting the blame

If these patterns of governance were true of any given nation in the global South, the West would cry corruption. Yet such corruption is normalised in the command centres of the global economy, perpetuating poverty in the developing world while Transparency International directs our attention elsewhere.

Even if we do decide to focus on localised corruption in developing countries, we have to accept that it does not exist in a geopolitical vacuum. Many of history’s most famous dictators – like Augusto Pinochet, Mobutu Sese Seko, and Hosni Mubarak – were supported by a steady flow of Western aid. Today, not a few of the world’s most corrupt regimes have been installed or bolstered by the US, among them Afghanistan, South Sudan, and the warlords of Somalia – three of the darkest states on the CPI map.

This raises an interesting question: Which is more corrupt, the petty dictatorship or the superpower that installs it? Unfortunately, the UN Convention conveniently ignores these dynamics, and the CPI map leads us to believe, incorrectly, that each country’s corruption is neatly bounded by national borders.

Corruption is a major driver of poverty, to be sure. But if we are to be serious about tackling this problem, the CPI map will not be much help. The biggest cause of poverty in developing countries is not localised bribery and theft, but the corruption that is endemic to the global governance system, the tax haven network, and the banking sectors of New York and London. It’s time to flip the corruption myth on its head and start demanding transparency where it counts.

Dr Jason Hickel lectures at the London School of Economics and serves as an adviser to /The Rules. 

Follow him on Twitter: @jasonhickel