Malawi media challenged to give balanced elections coverage

The media in Malawi has been asked to level the playing field in its reporting in the run up to the country’s May 20 tripartite elections.

The call comes from a media monitoring and evaluation unit established to monitor fairness and accuracy in reporting the May 20 presidential, parliamentary and local government polls.

According to a preliminary report by the unit, the country’s media has given much focus on the so called “four major” political parties and their candidates.

Kasunda: Pleasing development

Kasunda: Pleasing development

The report indicates that from March 22 to April 2, 2014, all outlets including the print, electronic and online media, gave a significant coverage to presidential candidates compared to parliamentary and local government aspirants.

The parties and candidates enjoying coverage were People’s Party (PP) torch bearer (the incumbent Malawi leader) Joyce Banda, United Democratic Front (UDF)’s Atupele Muluzi, Malawi Congress Party (MCP) candidate Dr Lazarus Chakwera and Democratic Progressive Party (DPP)’s Peter Mutharika.

While applauding the media for a job-well-done in the said period, the unit has however described the biasness towards the Presidential aspirants as a “worrying development”.

“This is worrisome and we would like to ask the media to level the playing field and start focusing on the other [eight] presidential aspirants as well as parliamentary and local government candidates,” said Prof. Edrinnie Kayambazinthu of Chancellor College.

She said: “My plea is that we’d be happy if we saw that much coverage was also going to the local government aspirants because they are the ones who will be representing the people on the grassroots.”

Prof. Kayambazinthu was speaking in an interview with Nyasa Times in Blantyre on Friday during a media conference organized by the unit to brief members of the local press on the preliminary findings.

Asked as to why the local media was focusing on the “four major” parties and candidates, the Professor said the media would be in a better place to give their reasons.

She however observed that it might be an issue of funding.

Said Prof. Kayambazinthu: “Politics is a game of money and it could be an issue to do with funding, hence other parties and candidates are having an upper hand in terms of reaching out to many parts of the country as well as media coverage.”

The monitoring unit comprises MISA Malawi Chapter, Institute for War and Peace Reporting (IWPR), the National Democratic Institute (NDI), Chancellor College, Malawi Institute of Journalism (MIJ) and the Polytechnic.

Highlights of the results:

The highlights of the results are based on data collected from monitoring the following media outlets:

Print – The Daily Times, Malawi News, Sunday Times, The Nation, Weekend Nation and Sunday Nation; Social media (Facebook Groups) and Web News  which included Nyasa Times and other; Malawi Broadcasting Corporation Television station and Radio 1 and 2, Capital FM, Galaxy, Joy, MIJ, Matindi, Star and Zodiak radio stations.

The results are based on 365 radio news stories, 253 newspaper articles and 245 online items, bringing the total to 863 items.

The data is mainly on balance between Presidential, Parliamentary & Local elections and which party was mentioned in the particular media; voice, that is, which parties were quoted or heard directly in print or web or on air; the non-party or candidate items monitored in detail and what subjects were covered; the number of items discussed and which were broadly neutral, pro or anti.

In terms of general observations, the media houses, newspapers for example, have broadly focussed on the electoral process followed by campaign issues on Law and Order, the Economy, Cashgate or Corruption and Agriculture.

In terms of tone of coverage, the study showed that the online media was mostly neutral, which as said by MISA Malawi chairperson Anthony Kasunda, “is a pleasing development which ought to be encouraged”.

The report applauds Nyasa Times for its fair coverage towards all the political parties and their candidates.

Another interesting development is that the tone of coverage on TV was also broadly neutral by both MBC TV and Times TV. However, the tone on MBC TV is mostly pro-PP as the report indicates that most of the clips used on MBC TV were of presidential candidates followed by parliamentary candidates.

In terms of negative tone generally, most of the coverage was broadly anti-PP. Online content had chats predominantly anti-PP followed by anti-DPP and anti-UDF then anti-MCP. The report notes that “this is not surprising given the main issues which dominated all the media that was monitored”.

In terms of positive tone, it is important to note that the PP received most of the positive coverage and negative coverage.

The coverage of issues varied according to radio station. Most of the news on electoral process and Agriculture came from MBC 1 and Joy Radio while issues on Economy, Aid and foreign relations mostly came from Joy Radio and Matindi FM. Issues on law and order were mostly covered on Joy and Star. Cashgate and other corruption issues were covered mostly on Capital FM and Star FM.

In summary all media monitored gave significant coverage to the presidential race and mostly mentioned the PP presidential candidate which they covered with a neutral, positive and negative tone.

In general PP received most coverage which was biased towards and against it. This is in keeping with the electorates expectations on delivery by the incumbent and her government. The Local Government elections are somehow embedded in the main horse race since as a presidential and parliamentary system, the president holds more power than the other candidates.

On the state radios and television station PPs presidential candidate and the party received more coverage than the other parties. This shows that up until April 2, 2014 there is bias of coverage towards PP and unfairness towards other parties.

“Implicationally, the state broadcaster is not changing with the times,” according to the report.

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