Journalists and government officials in Malawi are reacting differently to the latest Worldwide Press Freedom Index showing the country’s poor standing. In its 2011-2012 media rankings, Reporters Without Borders says Malawi has plunged 67 places - the biggest fall of any country.
Reporters Without Borders now ranks Malawi 146 out of 179 countries in terms of its press freedom. The Paris-based group says the 67-place drop was due primarily to the threats against and arrests of journalists during July’s anti-government democracy protests - which left at least 18 dead.
But presidential spokesperson Hetherwick Ntaba defend’s Malawi’s record and calls the latest media ranking index unrealistic. "Dropping 67 places would mean something catastrophic is happening. You know the newspapers here are full of so many insults against the president, against all of us," Ntaba said. "I am convinced that journalists in Malawi enjoy a measure of freedom that is not found in many countries in the world."
Another factor in Malawi’s drop was new, tougher media legislation - criticized internationally and which caused some European countries to suspend aid. The move by parliament amended section 46 of the penal code - giving the minister of information the power to ban or close publications not “deemed in the public interest.”
But Ntaba says even this doesn’t warrant Malawi’s drop in the index. “I don’t know why anybody would go and say basing on section 46 - which everybody is making lots of noises - therefore press freedom in Malawi must jump 67 places when that same section 46 was highly praised and recommended to the government by lawyers by religious leaders and by other eminent persons," Ntaba stated. "So if somebody is going to scream that this law is very oppressive, that character has got to be an enemy of the government."
Reporters Without Borders' Worldwide Press Freedom Index is an annual report that uses more than 50 criteria to assess press freedom across the world. These include violations such as murder, assault, threats and censorship from governments, armed militias and other pressures.
Chairman of the National Media Institute for Southern Africa Anthony Kasunda says the new ranking should be an eye-opener for the government here to reconsider its position.
“I think the bottom line is that Malawi should guarantee the freedom of the press and allow its journalists to exercise their freedom of the press. And we have seen some elements trying to stifle that freedom," Kasunda said. "We still remain optimistic. Sometimes, in times like this, is when you get the positives. And we hope the authorities are looking into their shortfalls and will make things right."
Kasunda says reviewing section 46 would be a very good place for the government to start.