Why should Malawians continue funding MBC?

The latest radio listenership figures released by Malawi’s telecoms regulator, MACRA that put Zodiak Broadcasting Station 33% ahead of Malawi Broadcasting Corporation (MBC) is good news for Malawi democracy, just as it provides a good case that reforms at MBC are well overdue. Zodiak should be congratulated for the strides they have made on Malawi’s broadcasting industry. Zodiak’s presence and impact contributes to pluralism on Malawi airwaves, and this is crucial for democracy.

Of course every research method has its own shortfalls. Thus it is not surprising that MACRA’s research methods are being questioned. Yet this is merely academic, it does not change the importance of the findings. Anyone who is surprised that audiences are migrating from MBC has not been paying attention. MBC has been in the headlines lately, members of the general public, including high profile figures like the retired State Vice President, Justine Malewezi have been complaining about MBC’s bias towards parties in power and its failure to accommodate opposition parties and dissenting views.

One problem with quantitative research method, which MACRA used, is that unlike qualitative research methods, it is not flexible enough to explain causations. This leaves MACRA’s study open to anybody’s interpretation. Knowing causations, as opposed to speculation and guesses, is important for the broadcasters concerned broadcasters. It would help them with policy adjustments etc. On the other hand, advocates of good democratic practices and fairness in democratic processes are understandably relieved that MBC has finally got competition.

 

The study has come at a critical time in view of the fact that the country is gearing up for tripartite election in May 2014. Consequently, most people are looking at this study with those elections in mind. On Monday the renowned human rights activist, Rafiq Hajat wrote on his Facebook wall: “The supremacy of MBC on the airwaves has vanished. What does this mean for a level playing filed for the forthcoming tripartite elections?”MBC (1)

The jury is definitely still out; measuring impact of the media on people’s electoral decisions is notoriously difficult and the impact of shifting listenership on the forthcoming elections may not be known, even after the elections. Gospel Kazako, Zodiak’s Managing Director, was reported in the Daily Times yesterday (10/09/13) saying that the study has made it clear that whoever wants to talk to Malawians has to speak to Zodiak because that is where the audiences are. Kazako has to cease the moment; Zodiak will be naïve not to make the most of it. It is their opportunity to get even more listenership. This comes with more advertising revenue – the life-blood of any media organisation.

This however, must not detract us from the fact this MBC remains a national broadcaster and it is as relevant as ever. MBC’s mandate, as a public broadcaster, funded by taxpayers’ money is not the same as privately owned Zodiak. MBC remains a public good, designed to benefit all Malawians – across the political divide. Well-meaning Malawians must fight on to have MBC opening up to all Malawians must carry on, until MBC reforms.

As far as content is concerned, MBC is arguably the only public institution that has resisted reform in the last 20 years that Malawi has been a multiparty democracy. Now that majority of the taxpayers have voted with their feet and migrate to other broadcasters, Malawians need to carefully think about this question: Why should the taxpayers continue funding MBC, and for whose benefit?

Information Minister, Moses Kunkuyu, rightly pointed it out to the Daily Times that the study is a wake up call for MBC. Yet his prescription for that correct diagnosis depicts a man living in denial. Kunkuyu noticed that the study was an indicator for MBC to build its capacity and even its financial muscle. Adding that he believed that the dwindling audiences will come back because “MBC is changing a lot and when people start seeing things like politicians from opposition parties being given a platform we are sure that their perception towards MBC is going to change.”

It is disingenuous for Kunkuyu to put this down to MBC needing to strengthen its financial muscle. Unlike Zodiak and all other private broadcasters, government funds MBC and on top of that it gets advertising revenue. MBC should therefore be in a better financial position than its competitors. Kunkuyu should know that the issue here is about editorial content, solution of which is depoliticising the broadcasters. Is any surprising that no one is talking to MBC Director General about this but Information Minister? Yes, giving opposition a platform is correct but it is not enough. MBC must also accommodate dissenting views whether from opposition, civil society organisations, NGOs or individual citizens. That is what pluralism is all about. Malawians must feel they own the radio, which they do.

Media play a critical role in democratisation and I believe that good journalism that enhances people’s understanding of political processes; informs people about issues of national importance, which empower the electorate and help them make informed decisions should be subsidised by the state. It plays a key role in development of strong democracies; if strengthening our democracy is what we want, this option should be considered. MBC in its current state is not fit for its purpose.

MBC is not an informer; it is an opinionator that aims not to empower the electorate but to distract them from the real issues. Now chickens are coming home to roost, Malawians cannot be fooled any longer; they are going where real issues are.

  • NOTE: Jimmy Kainja will be writing a weekly column on Nyasa Times, please make sure you check it every Wednesday.

 

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