In the article “Leveling the electoral playing field”, Malawi’s renowned academician-cum human rights and governance defender Edge Kanyongolo expresses pessimism over the success of the forthcoming tripartite elections. According to him, just as it was with the 1994, 2004 and 2009 elections the 2014 elections will be problematic due to our perennial failure to learn from our previous shortfalls.
“At the heart of the near-certainty of a problematic 2014 elections is our failure over the years, to resolve the many of the structural and political factors that have contributed to making elections problematic in previous years”, contends Kanyongolo, an associate professor in constitutional law and one of the founders of Civil Liberties Committee.
However, of the three areas which Kanyongolo highlights as having been problematic in the past elections is the biasness of the state-run media in particular Malawi Broadcasting Corporation- both its radio and television stations- against opposition parties and in favour of the ruling party.
It is no secret that despite the advent of democracy in the country in the early 1990s which amongst many other things calls for a fair and independent state-media accessible to all, MBC has all along been skewed towards the government of the day, and in most cases used as government’s paraphernalia to unleash “uncensored” attacks on the opposition, the civil society and everyone who is critical of the prevailing regime. This is ably represented in Center for Human Rights and Rehabilitation’s Alternative Report for the Review of Republic of Malawi by the Human Rights Committee
Submitted on 11th January 2011 by CHRR’s Undule Mwakasungula, the report observes that “the public broadcasters in Malawi MBC and Television (MBC TV) has for a long time been criticized for their editorial policy which usually favours the party in power. Usually the opposition political parties are not given airtime to air out their concerns, and if at all they are allocated air time then it is bad publicity.”
The report justifies the above trend by giving a clear illustration of Mutharika’s regime which, according to the report, abused and monopolized access to the state owned Malawi Broadcasting Corporation and Television in the propaganda of its own political party agenda by, amongst many other things, “castigating those perceived to be holding contrary views to government including the-then state Vice President Mrs Joyce Banda [now President of Malawi] who was fired from the ‘ruling party’ as the first Vice President allegedly for refusing to endorse the President’s young brother, Peter Mutharika as the ‘ruling party’s ‘Presidential candidate in 2014”.
So intense was MBC’s premature campaign for Peter Mutharika that even its executive director Bright Malopa constructively declared himself the ruling party’s mouthpiece by for instance rendering his blessing on the President’s brother at the expense of the Vice President Banda whom he described as unpopular. Even in instances where such a bid was perceived to be unpopular, hasty and undemocratic, MBC unrelentingly soldiered on – employing its perennial tactic of mobilizing chiefs, who were said to “speak on behalf of their subjects”, to support Peter Mutharika. Throughout this period Peter Mutharika enjoyed enormous coverage on both its radio and television stations. Furthermore, MBC in conjunction with government spearheaded a series of inspirational talks (or public lectures) by Peter Mutharika at Mzuzu University and University of Malawi aimed at selling Peter Mutharika’s 2014 candidature to the masses.
However, a few days after Joyce Banda ascended to the Presidency following Mutharika’s demise MBC began to register some improvements, a scenario that rekindled hope in its critics, who all along had dreamt of a better MBC which would be accessible to all irrespective of their political divide. At least some opposition party leaders and civil society leaders could be seen on MBC expressing their minds on various issues of national interest. For example, in one instance MBC announced the defections of some MPs from the ‘ruling’ Peoples Party to Democratic Progressive Party. All this was happening after President Joyce Banda had directed MBC to open up to the opposition, civil society and all the critics of the regime.
The new President received enormous praise from various quarters for the decision. For instance, in one of his Sunday Times column Political Economy article Chancellor College academician associate professor Blessings Chinsinga, the man who was at the centre of academic freedom struggle, confessed that he could now afford to watch MBC because of the-then few but worthy noticeable improvements.
Regrettably, this did not last long. Few months down the line MBC reverted to the old tradition of being the government’s mouthpiece to advance its agenda. Just as it was during Muluzi and Mutharika’s regime, MBC’s news bulletins are now awashed with the ruling party’s events. In cases where the opposition, civil society leaders or critics of the government are given some usually rare airtime then it is either bad publicity or they are praising some government’s initiatives. Contrary to her maiden pledge that she wouldn’t abuse MBC in order to advance her political agenda and that MBC would no longer be obliged to cover every state or party function, today every party and state function graced by the President enjoy maximum coverage on MBC.
It is therefore against this above conduct of MBC that many including Kanyongolo have expressed fears over the impartiality and independence of MBC’s coverage of the forthcoming 2014 tripartite elections. Such fears were recently echoed amongst a cross-section of delegates from the Civil Society, Media, academia, Malawi Electoral Commission, Traditional and Religious leaders, Political parties, parliament and all cooperating partners of National Initiative for Civic Education [NICE] who gathered for a two-day “pre-election stakeholders conference on sharing successes, lessons learnt and best practices for the 2014 Tripartite elections” held at Crossroads Hotel in Lilongwe. In a joint communiqué, the stakeholders present observed that the “Malawi Broadcasting Corporation has not changed at all- as can be evidenced by the style and focus of coverage of both its radio and television units, at the expense of creation of a level playing field for all electoral stakeholders and citizens. According to this grouping, such continued stance undermines electoral accountability and credibility of the voting processes and outcomes.
But why has MBC been acting in the above manner despite the prevailing laws (section 87 [a] and [d]) which directly demand MBC to be free from bias in its reporting? Kanyongolo attempts to answer this question by observing that it has all along been MBC’s tradition to violate and not respect the law. He cites the example of the 1999 High Court judgment ordering MBC to provide fair election coverage which was treated with contempt by the corporation. Since then Kanyongolo, narrates, MBC has been “treating itself as little more than a mouthpiece of the ‘ruling party’ of the day’. And so it has been since, concludes the constitutional law expert.
Certainly MBC has all along violated and not respected the law because of the politicians in the ruling elite who often dictate its operations in order to conform to their hidden political agendas as rightly observed above in both Kanyongolo’s article and CHRR’s report. These politicians, who have no political will for the values of democracy and human rights, wield enormous power and authority over the affairs of MBC, and they are indisputably behind MBC’s perennial disease to flout the constitution willy-nilly.
Only when our politicians, particularly those in the ruling party, shall appreciate the importance of having an impartial and independent state media for the consolidation of our young democracy and get committed in ensuring that this happens – that is seeing to it that MBC operates within the confines of the constitutional provision – then the prevailing complaints about MBC’s bias towards government and against opposition will be history.
Apart from “adopting steps to ensure that public broadcaster is independent and operating free from interference from government as well as enacting the Access to Information Bill” as correctly recommended by CHRR’s Alternative Report for the Review of Republic of Malawi by the Human Rights Committee, there is a dire need for our politicians to rise above partisanism and adhere to democratic values by showing an inward and external total commitment towards the realization of a bias-free MBC, open to all.
It’s high time our politicians, particularly those in the ruling party, realized that media freedom is a constitutional guarantee and is enshrined in the 1995 constitution of the republic of Malawi. It’s implementation, existence and success, argues a former Journalism lecturer at Malawi Polytechnic Costly Ronalds Mtogolo [in his article published in Media Institute of Southern Africa’s So This is Democracy? State of Media freedom in Southern Africa 2004], “is not the preserve of an elected individual, a ruling political party or any international pressure group – it must be understood as an inalienable right of the Malawian”. When all is said and done, political will remains one of the viable solutions towards a better, independent MBC as we approach 2014 tripartite elections.
The author is a human rights activist working in the realm of democratic governance in Malawi and likes to comment on political and human rights issues.