Why is no-one talking about Malawi?

Feb 18, 11 Why is no-one talking about Malawi?

The successful popular uprising in Egypt has raised various questions. Questions like, “to what extent did the sustained interest of foreign media enable protests to continue for long enough to be successful?” Attempts by security forces to shut down foreign media reporting, as well as the interest of foreign governments, in response to the concerns of their own people, seem to suggest that the presence of foreign media helped. Foreign media coverage seemed to open up or at least sustain a space for protest in a country where the leadership was attempting systematically to shut down the democratic space – a vital factor in the success of the Egyptian protests. Egypt is lucky. Most African countries don’t get that kind of media attention.

Malawi, for example. Malawi hasn’t been under dictatorship for 30 years but they do find themselves in a situation where increasingly draconian laws are being enacted by a president determined that his brother is going to succeed him, and where local objections are having less and less effect.

When governments shut down the democratic space and limit the local media, foreign and international media play a key role in opening that space back up and giving the people a voice.

The Malawian government recently passed amendments to the penal code that give the information minster the power to ban any publication deemed contrary to the public interest. The amendments also harden Malawi’s stance on homosexuality, explicitly criminalising lesbian relationships. Local courts were recently created, raising fears of a modern reincarnation of the “traditional courts” used to persecute political opposition under Malawi’s previous dictatorship. They also create a parallel (and incompatible) legal system with magistrate’s courts, undermining justice and equality before the law.

The Muslim Association of Malawi has joined the Catholic Church in expressing concern about the press laws and infringements on personal freedoms, such as the ability of police to search without a warrant. Police have also been instructed to shoot to kill when criminals are caught ‘red-handed’.

In the last week, police in Lilongwe prevented thousands of demonstrators from protesting Malawi’s serious fuel crisis – the country has been experiencing severe shortages for the past three weeks.

Lecturers at one of Malawi’s universities are concerned about academic freedom after the chief of police summoned and questioned a colleague about the content of his political science lectures, which police claim have incited protest through references to the situation in Egypt.

Local government elections crucial to addressing serious gaps in service delivery, were scheduled for April 2011 but are unlikely to take place because President Bingu wa Mutharika has indefinitely suspended the Malawi Electoral Commission.

Big donors USA and Germany have respectively delayed and reduced (by half) their aid to Malawi. The country is heavily dependent on aid. The UK has expressed concern about the possibility that the brother of the president might succeed him, according to WikiLeaks.

Solidarity with the Egyptian people is great, but where is the demand for more media interest in other places where democratic spaces are shut down?

It is possible that this is all blown out of proportion, that Malawi’s democracy is healthy and functional and that the economy will soon start to drag the 90% of the population living on less than US$2 a day out of their dire poverty. If foreign media coverage and interest remain at their current levels no-one will know, unless or until the country slips into violence, chaos and/or hyper-inflation.

The role of media is crucial to maintaining democracy. When governments shut down the democratic space and limit the local media, foreign and international media play a key role in opening that space back up and giving the people a voice. Solidarity with the people of Egypt and claims of a victory for democracy are meaningless unless they translate into recognition of the factors that made the Egypt protest success possible. This includes role of foreign media. More pressure is needed on media to ensure increased coverage of regional and global situations where governments are behaving in an anti-democratic manner. That pressure, in a capitalist system, has to come from the same people who sat glued to their TV screens, twitter feeds and newspapers over the weeks of the Egyptian protests.

Solidarity with the Egyptian people is great, but where is the demand for more media interest in other places where democratic spaces are shut down? Where is the demand, in South Africa, for media coverage of the African continent not filtered by the news interests of consumers in Doha, London or New York? Where are the democracy-loving, Egyptian-people-supporting South Africans demanding accurate, up-to-date Southern African news, so that they can give the same support and solidarity to the people of Malawi?

Image by World Economic Forum