Ensuring public media neutrality in Malawi polls: Why a popular revolution may be necessary

The role of the mass media in elections has been exhaustively studied and its contribution towards profiling candidates and creating public awareness of competing ideas, ideologies, policies and promises recorded and acknowledged. What remains controversial is the media’s role in determining the outcome of an election. Thus, the mass media are an important player in democratic elections.

It is no wonder then that freedom of the media to report on elections and to give an opportunity to all candidates to sell their propaganda is one of the criteria many electoral observer missions use to certify an election as free and fair or not.

In Malawi the Communications Act, the Parliamentary and Presidential Elections Act, the Local Government Elections Act, among others are very clear on how the media should conduct themselves during the electoral season, that is, during the continuous campaign, voting, and post election period.

Compared to the pre-1993 referendum, Malawi today enjoys media diversity with a reasonable independent print and broadcast sector. Although the print media has withered from 21 publishing houses about twenty years ago to just three currently, Malawians have the freedom to choose from a potpourri of more than 20 operational public, private and community radio stations, and three television stations.

The message to the authorities is crystal clear: Journalists need to operate in a free environment -
The message to the authorities is crystal clear: Journalists need to operate in a free environment –

However, during the election period, public scrutiny is, justifiably, directed to the conduct of the Malawi Broadcasting Corporation (TV and Radio) because it is a public broadcaster, financed by public money, and therefore owned by all Malawians.

Mandatory role of public broadcasting in elections

All over the world, public broadcasting is considered the only platform accessible to all political contestants. Even the African Commission on Human and People’s Rights upholds freedom of public broadcasting from undue state influence. Its Declaration of Principles on Freedom of Expression in Africa calls on African states and governments to transform their broadcasters into public service broadcasters “accountable to the public through the legislature rather than the government” (VI: 1). Article VI recommends that public broadcasters: [1] should be governed by politically neutral boards; [2] should enjoy editorial independence; [3] be adequately funded to execute their mandates and “include an obligation to ensure that the public receive[s] adequate, politically balanced information, particularly during election periods”.

Malawi has been a “good boy” on paper because since 1998, no law or written policy has been made to compromise the performance of the MBC. By law  (see Communications Act 1998, section 87), the MBC is supposed to not only “function without any political bias and independently of any person or body of persons”, but also to “support the democratic process” and “ to provide balanced coverage of any elections”.

In conformity with the provisions of the Communications Act of 1998, the MBC was licensed as Public Service Broadcaster (PSB) in 2004, but interestingly, the legal obligation contained in Section 87 of the Communications Act for the MBC to provide “balanced coverage of any elections” was watered down. Instead, Schedule 5 of the Public Service Broadcasting License Conditions gives the MBC the option of covering or not covering the elections and if it opts to cover the elections, it should do so equitably.

Lawyers argue that a Malawi Communications Regulatory Authority licence is not a law. Therefore, the MBC is obliged to operate with the provisions of Section 87 of the Communications Act.  Surprisingly, no serious pressure has been exerted on the authorities and the MBC management to strictly follow the Communications Act of 1998. Consequently, the MBC has been dominated and manipulated by the party in power. Unless something drastic is done the ruling parties will dominate the MBC during all future elections.

Due, in part, to the above unfair coverage, both the 2004 and 2009 elections were declared unfair but substantially free, peaceful and acceptable. Former Ghanaian President, John Kufour, who led the 2009 Commonwealth observer mission, minced no words about the quality of the 2009 election when he said: “There has been an unlevel playing field for the elections, which has unfortunately tarnished the democratic character of the campaign. There has been an inordinate exploitation of the incumbency advantage, relating to the use of state institutions and resources, as well as state media.

“We are extremely concerned at the conduct of state-owned media in its coverage of these elections. The Election Law provides that every political party shall have the right to have its “campaign propaganda” broadcast on radio by the Malawi Broadcasting Corporation. In addition, major media had all signed a Code of Conduct highlighting the need for balanced and fair reporting. However, reporting and coverage of the President and DPP’s campaign by state radio and TV was unashamedly partisan”. (http://www.thecommonwealth.org/news/190591/163072/201032/210509malawicogintertim.htm) Strong words, but no follow-up action.

Why not a peaceful popular revolution?

During the 1993 Referendum and the 1994 General Elections, MBC behaved professionally by giving all contestants an opportunity to be heard. It meant that professionalism is not the issue at MBC. Its reporters are amongst the best in Malawi.  Biased coverage started with the 1999 Election and is set to continue as long as political patronage is celebrated.

Beyond condemning the elections as unfair, one would have expected electoral stakeholders, donors, and observer missions to recommend tangible action to entrench democracy in Malawi. There are several reasons why the MBC has not changed.

Firstly, the international community is not interested in fair elections. European Union, African Union, and Commonwealth Observer missions have been unanimous in their condemnation of previous electoral processes. However, no sanctions have been recommended, thus indicating that it is all right to have a biased public broadcasting coverage as long as the voting and campaigning are free.

Not surprisingly, the US and British embassies in Malawi were recently cited in the mass media as having condemned the politicians for using foul language. They did not say anything on the political unashamed bias on the MBC. The implication is that if there will be no campaign-related foul language, the Americans and the British will be satisfied and declare the 2014 elections free and fair.

Secondly, politicians and their political parties enjoy public broadcaster bias.  The results of media monitoring have been made available to all, but the opposition has rarely taken a reasonable stand to change the conduct of the MBC during elections. Thirdly, Malawi’s civil society has been very vocal on some issues, but not on MBC.

From 2006 to 2009 the national budgets were passed mostly due to public pressure led by the Civil Society (NGOs, Churches and university students).  For days, the public camped at the New State House to pressurise parliamentarians to pass the national budget. The opposition MPs capitulated and the budget was passed.

This demonstrates that public pressure works.  Some analysts have proposed that listeners, advertisers, and donors should boycott the MBC. However, this cannot work because it will result in killing the MBC, a national asset. Punishing the MBC economically cannot work either because that will be tantamount to pushing it further into the hands of the party in power. Only public pressure through daily sit-ins and peaceful demonstrations can change the conduct of the MBC.

Public pressure led to the 1993 referendum on political reforms in Malawi. Public pressure led to the collapse of apartheid in South Africa. Public pressure led to the successful overthrow of the dictatorial regimes in the Arab world. Public pressure, through the Occupy Movement, led to US politicians to focus attention on President Obama’s Health Care reforms and unfair capitalist business practices.  Public protests led to the reduction of Malawi president’s convoy and the sale of the presidential jet.


For public pressure to be exerted on the MBC, Civil Society needs to educate the public that through their taxes and their Malawian citizenship, they are shareholders in the MBC. The public should be schooled on why MBC should not be left to defy the laws of land. The public should be educated that the government, or the party in power, cannot change the MBC because it is the major beneficiary.

The public should be oriented on the fact that the opposition cannot change the MBC because it is waiting for its time to dominate the public broadcaster. The international community cannot change the MBC because in its definition of democratic elections fair and equitable coverage by public broadcasters are weightless. But the public can demand change at MBC. Civil Society can. Churches can. University students can. We can. Today. —Source: The Lamp

*Dr Manda is a media and communication strategist, researcher and media trainer. Email:[email protected]

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