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AFRICA: Counting on Media for Good Governance

Charles Mpaka

LILONGWE, Oct 21 2009 (IPS) - While campaigning in the last election, Margaret Roka Mauwa, Member of the Malawian Parliament, did not promise her voters that when she won she would buy them coffins.

Margaret Roka Mauwa, the deputy Minister of Agriculture in Malawi, says she believes in working with the media. Credit: Charles Mpaka/IPS

Margaret Roka Mauwa, the deputy Minister of Agriculture in Malawi, says she believes in working with the media. Credit: Charles Mpaka/IPS

Currently in Malawi, aspiring MPs have offered to buy would-be voters things that they need, like coffins for their dead, as a way of getting votes. Some officials have gone so far as to start coffin-making workshops in their areas just so the villagers who vote for them can get coffins for free.

It is a common practice, but one Mauwa refused to follow. Instead, she promised her voters what she knew she would be able to deliver

And as the deputy minister of agriculture, in a country that once was forced to import food, and now has a surplus of crops that it exports throughout the world, Mauwa has proved her point.

Mauwa believes that in a democracy, it is important for politicians to tell people the truth. In that way, you avoid misunderstandings with the constituents and you participate well in making democracy grow, she says.

But she is painfully aware that however hard she tries, she may not escape from the critical eye of the media, especially because she is also deputy minister of agriculture. Agriculture has recently become one of Malawi’s main source of income.

She likes the media because, she says, they are partners in shaping Malawi’s political system and help public servants to inform the nation about what their government is doing.

However, she has also learnt that the media can be disappointing.

"I have noticed that often journalists wait until something is wrong and they come to you. Sometimes they bring provocative questions, may be with bad intentions (to put the officials in bad light as being inefficient). That is why you see arrogance on the part of some of the politicians when dealing with journalists," Mauwa says.

Mauwa is proof of the development of democracy in Malawi.

Malwai’s president, Bingu wa Mutharika, is also the active minister of agriculture. And Mauwa, a female, is second in command in a department that has won Mutharika praises around the world for Malawi’s improved food security situation.

She is among the 42 female MPs that made it to parliament in the elections. Of the 193 members that were elected to the national assembly in the May 2009 elections, 145 were new people. Mauwa was one of the new faces.

For the first time in the history of multiparty politics in Malawi, people did not vote for political parties and candidates because of the region from which the leadership of the parties came.

Catholic Commission for Justice and Peace (CCJP), one of the prominent civil society organisations in Malawi, says one of the outstanding features of Malawi’s democracy to- date has been that voters have turned the corner from choosing people just because they have been around in politics for a long time and because they belonged to a certain region or political party.

"This recent election has shown how grown up Malawian voters are becoming. They are electing people based on issues," says Christopher Chisoni, National Coordinator for CCJP.

The elections beat many bookmakers’ expectations. It was not expected that Mutharika and his party would win with a landslide. It was also not expected that Malawians would go for as many new faces in parliament.

"Citizens have come of age and politicians know now that voters can no longer be taken for granted. We have reached a stage where even ordinary Malawians are able to speak out loudly on issues that are affecting them," says Chisoni.

CCJP gives thumbs-up to the media, among other key players, for keeping public servants on their toes. According to the organisation, Malawian media has been questioning the performance of public individuals and making them accountable to the people that elected them.

There are many such cases of this. A former minister is currently in jail after a newspaper revealed that he had spent public money on a wedding of his daughter.

And an investigation is reportedly going at the country’s communications regulator after a newspaper investigation uncovered corrupt practices in awarding of mobile licences. The minister involved is Patricia Kaliati, minister of gender, women and community development.

The public officers have also been relying on the media to account to the nation about what is being done by, for example, publishing information like country’s progress and shortfalls on reaching the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs).

But the organisation observes that in the name of being seen to be doing a good job, some public officials are "exploiting the poverty" of some media to meet personal public relations matters rather than to bring worth to public debate and move development agenda for Malawi.

Not all media houses in Malawi are very profitable and not all journalists are well paid. There have been claims that some public officials give money to journalists so they can publish only the good about them.

However, there are some media houses that protect the independence of the fourth estate and have carried articles faulting public officials for failing to tackle real issues in their areas.

"As civil society, we are not interested in public figures who want the media when they are donating 20 balls to some barefoot young men in their village. That sounds like raising a personal profile. We want them to use the media in a way that adds value to national debate on our politics and development," says Chisoni.

Executive Director for Media Council of Malawi (MCM) Baldwin Chiyamwaka says the media, which played a crucial role in bringing democracy in Malawi in 1993 through publishing diverse views in favour of change, has been facilitating the growth of that democracy by being a place where people discuss failings and successes of the process and of those meant to drive it.

"The media has been there with us every step on the way. As an emerging democracy, Malawi will continue to rely on the media as a tool to make public servants answerable to the people because that is a sure way of making our democracy strong," he said.

On whether the media in Malawi are too hard on public officials, Chiyamwaka said that at times, journalists have expected too much from politicians, even when they are new and without adequate information on parliament. He said this has resulted in indifferent treatment of journalists by some politicians.

"Sometimes, in our hunger for news we seem to forget that politicians are human beings too. They experience what we experience. They have failings like us. They are not special machines to be producing miracles all the time. So, on occasions, it would pay to give them time. It would be worthwhile to put our pens down on them and look elsewhere where we can get better quality news," Chiyamwaka said.

However, the authorities should not always expect the papers to be carrying positive stories only. He says it is the nature of the media to tackle both positive as well as the negative stories even if the public officials will not like it.

On her part, Mauwa said that the troubles that some Malawian MPs find themselves in are self-made.

A musician-cum-MP stirred anger among the people in his area when in his contribution in parliament last August, he complained that the music he had composed had been pirated. His constituents were angry with him, saying when he was campaigning, he did not say that he would fighting against music piracy but that he would be building bridges and schools in his area.

But in Mauwa’s campaign for the elections, she told her voters that she would not tell them what she would not be able to do just for the sake of getting votes.

"I told them that my job as their Member of Parliament would be to facilitate development. I did not promise to buy coffins for whoever dies in the area because I knew that I would not do it and that it was not the job of an MP.

"Because I told them what they would expect from me, there is a good understanding between us so far. I think that in a democracy, it is important to tell people the truth," she says.

Kaliati, minister of gender, women and community development, has held various cabinet portfolios since 2004. Since then she has been an MP and was one of few female MP survivors in the recent election.

One of the few public officials readily accessible to media in Malawi, Kaliati says her strength has been to be approachable to everyone.

"My policy is to be there for anyone, rich or poor, the media. Democracy is about being with people. That has helped me to know my weaknesses and strengths and I think that is useful for our growing democracy," she says.

Kaliati, who was minister of information before the elections in May, says media in Malawi has, however, been irritating with "their lack of judgement on what to publish and not to publish."

She has been in the papers herself several times for wrong reasons including corruption allegations and fights with ordinary women she is claimed to have suspected to be going out with her husband, a business man in her home town. (Kaliati is the minister involved in the corruption scandal with the country’s communications regulator which is currently under investigation.)

"The greatest challenge that we have in our democracy is poverty and that is also affecting the way you people report. You concentrate on reporting on issues in urban areas because that is where people who can bribe you are found. These are only the people that will see the sense in democracy. You are leaving out issues in rural areas and people there cannot see any change," she argues. CCJP is wary that most new, energetic and accessible representatives like Mauwa and Kaliati are now in a majority government.

According to CCJP, what has not ticked with Malawi’s emerging democracy is that demands from citizens are often sabotaged by political power.

"Citizens have often called upon government to explain on poor social service delivery in sectors such as health, education and water development but government has not been forthcoming. The fear of CCJP as a representative of citizens is that a majority government would be as defiant as was the case with a majority opposition in the past five years," says Chisoni.

MCM hopes though that the media in Malawi, in spite of the capacity and legislation problems that they face, will continue to play their role in bringing the MPs back to their constituents and to the service of the nation.

"That is the duty of the media, to make democracy grow and work for the people, to give people a continuous voice until somebody hears it," Chiyamwaka says.

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