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.