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Ailing president, self-censorship and the duty to report the news

Malawian journalist Golden Matonga recalls that on the morning of April 5, 2012, President Bingu wa Mutharika was at State House, Lilongwe, discussing maendeleo with MP Agnes Penemulungu.

“Penemulungu looked down at her notes, and when she looked up, the president’s arms and legs were stiff and his eyes unblinking. “Bwana, Bwana,” she shouted. Boss, boss! Not long after Bingu arrived at ICU at Kamuzu Central Hospital in Lilongwe,” Matonga wrote last week.

Too late, nothing the doctors could do.

Bingu’s death meant vice president Joyce Banda who had been kicked out of the ruling party must succeed him. To prevent this, for 48 hours the ruling party told the world the president was alive as the bigwigs battled to block Banda. They failed.

“Then State House issued a statement in the evening stating the president was ill and being flown out to South Africa. Indeed, they put a ventilator to his body under pseudonym Daniel Phiri and flew it out. A dead president.”

What did the Malawian media know all the while? Everything.

“The president’s death was announced officially on the third day, but our sources had told us the moment he died that we had lost the president. But which editor could dare pronounce him dead in a story? So for two days, we published about illness when we knew better,” Matonga said.

On March 9, reports “emerged” on social media that Tanzanian president John Magufuli was seriously ill. Prof Nic Cheeseman of the University of Birmingham who was once a Nation columnist tweeted that two sources had told him Magufuli had Covid “but wanted to avoid hospital given his stance it is not that bad. So don’t expect the government to be forthcoming with info”.

Next day the Nation carried a strange exclusive titled, “African leader taken ill, admitted to city hospital” (March 10, p.8). Strange because the report was a string of vitendawili readers were tasked to tegua.

“The leader of an African country who has not appeared in public for nearly two weeks is admitted to Nairobi Hospital for Covid-19 treatment, even as his government remains mum over his whereabouts,” the report said.

“The Nation cannot disclose his name as officials from both governments declined to officially confirm his admission to Nairobi Hospital, citing diplomatic protocol”.

But Kimathi Street gave hints about the unnamed president, especially his disastrous handling of the pandemic in his country.

Nation did not name the “African leader” because officials had declined to confirm his admission to hospital. So, what did the Nation publish, factual information or rumours? When did publishing facts independently known to journalists become subject to official confirmation? What’s media freedom?

An ailing foreign Head of State flown into the Kenyan capital to receive treatment after contracting a global pandemic is certainly a matter of public interest. That he has been publicly denying the severity of the disease in his country and refused to take all health precautions is the more reason his contracting the disease should be front-page news, complete with his name.

Nation hid the identity for two reasons. One, fear. That president has not only played down Covid-19 but also stopped local and international media from reporting on the situation. Nation feared he could kick them out of his country.

And two, many African media houses kowtow to officialdom due to business interests and state capture of the Fourth Estate. As Matonga said about the Bingu case in Malawi, “Reporting an African president’s illness is always tricky, even more [so] for local journalists whose government doesn’t want a whisper of such news.”

A day after the Nation’s vitendawili, the People Daily boldly identified the president Kimathi Street was scared of naming in a story titled, “Doctors weigh options for ailing Magufuli” (March 10, p.2). “Tanzanian president John Magufuli is admitted at the Nairobi Hospital over Covid-19 related complications”, the paper reported, citing confidential sources.

Self-censorship does not advance media freedom but emboldens dictators and other enemies of independent and fearless journalism.

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