Why won’t the Malawian media report on crazy mobile phone rates?

BBC recently reported that the average Malawian spends more than MK5400 (US$12) a month. That’s more than half the average monthly income in Malawi. Proportionate to earnings, Malawi has the most expensive mobile phone rates in the world.

A woman browses the internet trough her mobile phone

A woman browses the internet trough her mobile phone

There is no shortage of complaints within Malawi about expensive phone tariffs but this report (based on findings by the International Telecommunications Union) shows the extent of the problem. For a week, following the report, I monitored local newspapers reports and the mobile phone rates received no coverage at all. Not even by the growing number of columnists and opinion writers.

Why the silence on a story that is obviously of pressing concern to ordinary Malawians, and which made a splash internationally?

Only Nyasa Times, Malawi’s populist news website, republished a copy and paste version of BBC’s piece. Newspapers are the main agenda setters within local media in Malawi, and they didn’t cover the story at all.

There are two major mobile phone companies in the country, Airtel Malawi and TNM. These are also the main providers of mobile internet. Those familiar with the political economy of the local media will understand the media blackout on the mobile rates story. Like the rest of the world, Malawi’s newspaper industry depends on advertising revenue and mobile phone companies have become indispensable source of that revenue. The media industry cannot afford to get on the wrong side of these mobile phone corporations.

For a long time, the Malawian government and NGOs were the largest advertisers but mobile phone companies have now taken over because they are very consistent advertisers and they buy prime space in bulk —daily space for a whole year in some cases. There is fierce competition between the duopoly of Airtel Malawi and TNM and this drives the need for endless media advertising between the two.

An insider working with Airtel says: “all mobile phones companies buy strip ads [advertising banners on the bottom of front and back page] for the whole year.”

A look at a whole week’s run of the country’s two dailies, The Nation and The Daily Times shows strip ads alternating between the two mobile phone companies. If Airtel has a front page on Monday, TNM will have the back page, and on Tuesday it is the other way round.

According to the insider, these strip ads are worth MK180 000 (US$400) a day, which means newspapers make roughly MK131 million (US$291,111) annually from strip ads alone. Add these strip ads to various full-page adverts worth an average of MK280 000 (US$622) per advert, and you see that the revenue is colossal.

The insider said, of course the government and NGOs are important but they are not as valuable as mobile phone companies because government and NGOs mostly place job vacancies and press statements, which are neither daily nor in colour—which is more expensive, and they do not book expensive prime spots like front and back pages.

This explains the newspaper blackout on the mobile phones rates story. The mobile phone companies may not issue editorial directives but, as they say, only a foolish dog bites the hand that feeds it. Newspapers know exactly what to do. Of course the local media always have a go at politicians, the government and the civil society.

The media responsibility, always, is to hold to account those holding public positions. But this must include powerful corporations that rip off poor Malawians, 75 per cent of whom live on less than US$2 a day.

Of course Malawi media does a lot of commendable work reporting on government excesses and corruption in high places but the media know that they can afford to get on the wrong side of the government and politicians. The media know they have a public backing should the government withdraw advertising revenue or bring draconian media laws. This was the case in 2010 when the government of the late Bingu wa Mutharika threatened to withdraw advertising with some private media houses such as the Nation Publications Limited.

In 2007 Blantyre Newspaper Limited (BNL) were forced to retract a story they reported on a love triangle involving a Catholic priest, a banker and a married woman. The woman’s husband was seeking divorce in court after discovering that the wife was having an affair with the two men.

At the time BNL had a debt with the bank where the involved banker worked and his influence forced the immediate retraction of the story despite the fact that the story was based on a case that took place in an open court. Caroline Somanje, a journalist who wrote the story and BNL General Manager were fired from BNL for no editorial reasons, as BNL alleged, but for being insensitive to BNL’s financial interests.

Corporations in Malawi have more media influence than the government. Sadly, most people only pay attention to government’s efforts to muzzle the press, most through threats and regulation. This means corporate powers in Malawi are left unchecked. It would not surprise me that mobile phone companies also have financial support of the political establishment. Political parties in Malawi are not mandated to disclose their sources of income, and so they don’t.

  • Jimmy Kainja is a lecturer in Communications at Chancellor College, University of Malawi
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28 thoughts on “Why won’t the Malawian media report on crazy mobile phone rates?”

  1. Arick Chiomba says:

    Only a foolish Dog bits a hand that feeds! TNM and Airtel are the backborne of new organisations economy.

  2. Mr Coozman says:

    it is sad how these companies take advantage of us
    i wish some people could stand up for our consumer rights

  3. Wailing Soul says:

    Very good analysis> The conventional media are caught up in a Political Economy. What they’d rather report on is about TNM sponsors this, donates this. Airtel Golf tourney in Nchalo etc. yet we are being milked.

  4. PhonePhone says:

    There is alot that Malawians need to do in many sectors but i see it not bieng done because of financial handcape we always bribed.

  5. Emma NS says:

    too much for poor Malawians……we dont exactly feel advantage of using technology….

  6. Emma NS says:

    too much for poor Malawians.

  7. Cash B says:

    What sort of jounarists do we hav ??? They are jx selfish ……at free data while it is still costing …am a student but I spend almost k500 everyday for calls and data ..this is not fair for us poor malawians …we need to do something …we must do something for better malawi

  8. Chisinsi DM says:

    Indeed malawi mobile phone rates are very expensive than prostitutes!!!!!

  9. mwenye says:

    nice piece

  10. uladi says:

    You’ve raised the best ever since,welcome tot the internet NYASATIMES

  11. Nyambitoni says:

    I spend an average of K200 a day to buy data for my smart phone but to say the fact I don’t get enough quality services from these fraudsters. You buy a 5MB data which will barely last an hour. These people are ripping us off indeed. Unfortunately as you have pointed out mister author, we just don’t know the underground dealings between these crooks masquerading as mobile operators and the government. The media definitely won’t bite the hand that feeds them, quiet a pity! I smell something fishy here. Its mafia world. I expect at least some response from the PROs of the “thieving” mobile operators. We are being squeezed right, left and centre.

  12. maframes says:

    investigative journalism is what we luck in Malawi or rather self enrichment has totally engulfed the professional. Imagine everyday our Government makes a single mistake the following morning it will be the headline, now if we claim to be in formates of people then why you remain quite on very a very important issues like this. Remember, time will come when you too shall be shamed malicious acts.

  13. master says:

    well written bro, something is terribly wrong indeed!!! malawi is a country of bandits ndithu!!!!

  14. weniweni says:

    Ma company awa ngakuba basi muona each and everytym akuonjezera pa prices awo like atnm nde mmmmmh too much.

  15. Nyani wa ku Mwananyani says:

    This piece really does throw some light on an important issue. Well done Jimmy Kainja. Focused analysis, indeed.
    So, if political parties are in conflict-of-interest relationship with these telcos, what will it take for consumers to get reprieve from the exorbitant costs? Obviously, we cannot count on the print media to promote our (consumers’) cause.
    Apparently, there is no hope in hell, then!

  16. Rodriguas Latata says:

    Factual narrative. The other side of Malawi which is usually obscured by the corparations’ financial influence. Where shall we run to Oh! Lord hearken us.


  18. ğyu says:

    And amapatsidwa mafreebies monga ma units ndi ma t-shirt kuti azikhalira nkhani

  19. chilombo says:

    They are busy kulimbana ndizandale,gating everything. Cashgate,floodgate,drug-gate,Albinogate,graffitigate. Nawonso zomwe akupangazi ndi Reporting-gate or Journalism-gate

  20. Gundumulani says:

    A malawi ife tulo bwanji tipange maDemo amafoni akutibera

  21. Dingase says:

    Gud analysis since! Keep it up.

  22. Jim says:

    Well written

  23. Innocent says:

    Too bad

  24. pempho says:

    The lecture should do some research as to why the tarriffs are higher in Malawi than other countries . find out the connection charges Marcra imposed

  25. Chris Banda says:

    Bravo Jimmy,thus good observation

  26. George Lihoma. says:

    Zomvetsa chisoni kuti the three most expensive countries to use a mobile phone are all in Africa with ours topping the list-Malawi,Chad and C.A.R. Now the other way round, pazachuma,Malawi is rock bottom. Why do we sit on this nonsenseactivity amabungwe aboma omwe zikuwakhuza(MACRA)? This must be a joke of the year. Hahahahaha.

  27. fidelis says:

    if you are stupid enough to buy expensive airtime and you don’t make much money- it’s your problem!! Malawians are not enterpreneurial productive people and can’t use the phone for bizness but just miseche and kunyengana!! 50% of GDP goes to airtime-no wonder we are the poorest nation in the world- becoz we have the most stupid people in the world!!

  28. Truth says:

    Kainja you had to write this cramp. mobile rates are optional and no one is forced to buy expensive units. Please give us a break.

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