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Malawi Activists Worry About President's Refusal to Sign Press Accord

U.S. President Barack Obama (R) talks to the media next to President Joyce Banda of Malawi after his meeting with African leaders at the White House in Washington, March 28, 2013
Malawi President Joyce Banda has refused to endorse the 2007 Declaration of Table Mountain, which calls for a repeal of criminal defamation and ‘insult’ laws in order to protect freedom of the press. Numerous press freedom and civil society organizations have endorsed the declaration, including President Mahamadou Issoufou of Niger, Liberia’s president, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, and South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu.

Representatives of the media watchdog known as the National Media Institute for Southern Africa requested President Banda sign the declaration during an audience with the president last week at Sanjika Palace in the commercial capital, Blantyre.

National Media Institute for Southern Africa chairperson, Anthony Kasunda, said the president's refusal is a lost opportunity for Malawi.

“It was disappointing because this has happened at a time when the president has emphasized that she is a true friend of the media," Kasunda said, "and she already started very well in promoting media freedom in the country by repealing section 46 of the penal code, which gave powers to the minister of information to ban any publication deemed not to publishing in the public interest.

Press freedom in the Middle East and North Africa, 2013.
Press freedom in the Middle East and North Africa, 2013.
We thought that was a step in the right direction and now that she has refused to commit her government to repealing other insult laws by refusing to sign this declaration, it is worrisome,” he added.

Kasunda also said the rejection is not a huge surprise to the country’s media outlets, coming a few days after President Banda criticized the local media over its coverage of her administration.

“The rejection was not much of the surprise because during our audience she hinted on that, saying that she will not sign the declaration ‘because the media is always insulting me’ and they do not appreciate the good thing that she is doing [in promoting press freedom]," he remarked.

Kasunda said despite the rejection, the battle is not over.

“We still think there is still room for lobbying, and that’s what we are doing because eventually we still need commitment from the highest office," he explained. "We still need this declaration to be signed. So we are continuing with our lobbying so that eventually the president appends her signature on this declaration.”

Some human rights activists also regretted President Banda’s decision. Crispin Sibande, a human rights lawyer, told local radio Capital FM that apart from seeking the signature of the president, the media can still explore other avenues such as the Malawi Law Commission, that would see laws infringing on press freedom being amended or repealed.

“What I would recommend is that the media now should focus on other branches in government like parliament and judiciary," Sibande said, "because if you look at our constitution, our judiciary has a responsibility to enforce human rights in this country under section 46 of the Malawi Constitution. Most of the laws that the media are calling for liberalization [liberalizing] are laws that are supposed to be subjected to the [Malawi] constitution.”

Since taking over the government after President Bingu wa Mutharika's death last April, Banda’s administration has repealed Section 46 of the Penal Code, which gave powers to a minister to ban any publication and remove value added tax (VAT) on newspapers.