It’s not just MBC; Malawi media is biased against ‘smaller’ parties

Malawi Broadcasting Corporation (MBC) would win any award hands down when it comes to bias in its political coverage. One of the main reasons is that the executive arm of government, which in Malawi is hardly different from the ruling party, remains the main appointing authority at the institution. Perhaps this is why the state president needs to stand down before officially handing in their election nomination papers? The issue of bias at MBC is not new but it is inevitably revoked as the country prepares for the 20th May tripartite elections.

Importance of the media in a democracy is well documented. News media is a connective tissue between the electorate and those looking to get elected. This is one of the reasons that elections monitoring groups include news media when assessing fairness and merits of elections. Every election observer’s report since 1994 has faulted MBC as biased towards the incumbency.

Katsonga Phiri: Political parties in Malawi grow while in power
Katsonga Phiri: Political parties in Malawi grow while in power

MBC is mandated by Communications act (1998) to operate as a public broadcaster. This means the broadcaster is meant to be a public good, funded by taxpayers and operating in the interest of all Malawians. Not selected individuals, interest groups or political groupings. It is daft to ask a sitting president to ‘open-up’ MBC when such mandate is clearly spelled out in the Communications act. Where is MACRA? Alas! It is full of political appointees too. Who would willingly bite a finger that feeds?

Yet MBC is not the only culprit. The whole Malawi media fraternity are just as biased, albeit to a different degree. The media in general have a tendency to pick what they perceive as main contenders in elections, for various reasons. These contestants are a front-page story and they are given substantial coverage often for saying things that if it were any lesser candidate in the same race the story would be buried in the inside pages or slotted at the end of the news bulleting, if it makes news at all.

Surely this also constitutes to media bias. Yes, more prominent people are, in journalistic terms, more newsworthy than the less prominent but here we are talking about national elections where all the competing candidates are supposed to be equal, contesting for the same positions, following the same regulations and guidelines.

I was surprised to note that twelve presidential candidates initially presented their nomination papers a couple of weeks ago. This is not the impression one gets going through media reports on daily basis. Radio debates have been organised, some even funded by British High Commission yet these only feature representatives from four supposedly leading parties; MCP, UDF, DPP and PP. I doubt there are many people that would name at least half of those twelve candidates. I would certainly struggle to name all of them without referencing. Yet there are about 12 to the polling day.

‘Common sense’ may suggest there is some logic that the media are following. After all it happens throughout the world after all. Labour and Conservatives in UK get far more media coverage than Green Party and UKIP, for example.

It is a plausible argument but not a correct one. The media ought to give people all the available options impartially. It is up to the electorate to make their decision based on that impartial information. It is not the duty of the media to do the shortlisting for the people. This is what it means by levelling the playing field. The media want ‘leading candidates’ to headline newspapers and news bulletins but that is not the point. This is precisely what MBC is accused of.

It is fine for media organisations to declare their political interests. It is perhaps better that way because people know exactly what they are getting. In time of elections media coverage set the tone, it sets barriers and it leads the path that society follows. As it is, the media through news reports, opinion columns, such as this one and commentary are leading the way for Malawians to follow.

The media must give political parties coverage based on what they stand for not the size of political parties. It is not the size but policies that matter. Mark Katsonga is right, zipani za kuMalawi zimakulira ku Sanjika (political parties in Malawi grow while in power). Every party with clear ideas and policies can govern if given a chance.

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