Journalism and news values accounts for PP’s domination of Malawi airwaves, not politics

Last week political party spokespersons well falling over themselves, trying to explain why Malawi Communications Regulatory Authority’s (Macra) recent study concluded that the ruling People’s Party (PP) is the most covered political party on Malawi airwaves.

PP’s Hophmally Makande opined that the findings simply reflected that his party was the most active than the rest. His Democratic Progressive Party’s (DPP) counterpart, Nicolas Dausi attributed the findings to Malawi Broadcasting Station’s (MBC) bias towards the ruling party. While United Democratic Front’s (UDF) Ken Ndanga wondered if the study should be taken seriously after all, given that previous Macra studies were challenged, notably by Capital FM.

This was politics as usual. Everyone tried to defend their political parties the best they could. Yet, journalism and news values are primary features to explaining Macra’s findings; politics is secondary.

PP's Makande and UDF's  Secretary general Kandi Padambo at DPP convention earlier  this year
PP’s Makande and UDF’s Secretary general Kandi Padambo at DPP convention earlier this year

The findings come from 11 days, this is not enough and it is a serious flaw insofar as the research methodology goes. There could be factors that led to one political party being covered more than others during those 11 days – the “cash-gate” scandal, for instance involved more PP officials having to defend their party in the media. This could have easily led to PP receiving more coverage than others could. Macra should have cleared these grey areas; the best way is to replicate these findings over several months to reflect shifting dominant political discourse in the media.

However, it is not surprising, especially in developing democracies such as Malawi that a ruling party gets more coverage than those in opposition. This has more to do with journalism than anything attributed to. What makes news (news values) has an inherent bias. News values have it that actions of the elite and famous people are always “newsworthy”. By definition of this particular news value, a cabinet minister is more “newsworthy” than their equivalent in the opposition.

This means journalists are more likely to speak or quote cabinet ministers than any political figures – frontbenchers are more newsworthy than backbenchers. Malawi does not have a cabinet of technocrats – they all belong or they are sympathisers of the ruling party, ready to work for and defend Amayi at all cost. Barely do they utter a sentence without mentioning their political party and the president in their interviews. Malawi politics hardly draw a line between party and government statements.

Various studies by credible international organisations such as Article, Commonwealth and Electoral Institute for Sustainable Democracy in Africa conducted around the last three presidential and parliamentary elections period in Malawi have consistently identified media bias towards the incumbency.

Dausi got it right when told The Nation newspaper (17/10/2013) that MBC TV is the “propaganda media”. Yet, the fact is that even if MBC TV was not included in the study the outcome could not have been much different – even if online and print media is included. News values give advantage to those in position of authority.

Yes, time again there are pressures on the media from the government, directly or via its regulator, which takes advantage of its power to regulate and a near monopoly on advertising revenue by the government. There are numerous cases when Macra has restricted coverage on events that are against the interests of a ruling party. Libel laws remain a threat. Government departments and parastatals in the past have been ordered to stop placing advertising in media organisations that refuse to cover news in favour of a party in power.

In 1999, Sam Mpasu, then a cabinet minister under UDF administration admitted to Article19 that UDF government had this policy in place. Likewise, DPP government did likewise, banning advertisement in The Nation newspaper. Everything considered these are isolated cases. The fact is that majority of the news coverage has little to do with outside influence; it is shaped the very definition of news and news values.

The best example is how The Nation Newspaper covered the story on Macra findings; the newspaper only interviewed representatives of the country’s major political parties, apart from MCP. It is most likely that there was no one immediately from MCP to comment, the rest of the political establishment was ignored – here is the news hierarchy at play, the parties are considered more important than the rest.

It is almost impossible to imagine this story published without quoting a ruling party official. That is why the state president is always first on news bulletins followed by her deputy then ministers (on a day that all had something to say) this is the case on radio stations. What is newsworthy is the person giving information, not the information being given. In journalism, this is a natural order of things.

A renowned American dissident Noam Chomsky and Edward S Herman noticed that journalism needs a steady and reliable flow of news in order to meet their daily news demands and schedules. They observed that the attribute of official sources give the media the claim to objectivity and to protect themselves from accusations and criticism of bias and the threat of libel suits. The two added: “They [journalists] need material that can be portrayed as presumptively accurate.”

This is very relevant in our case here. In Malawi power is too centralised, the President makes all the key appointments and decisions. This is one of the key reasons the incumbent president and their inner circle tend to have more coverage in the media, as they occupy all the key positions of the state and make all the crucial decisions that are considered “newsworthy” – they are a must-go-to people for key information that journalists and their institutions need.

 *Jimmy Kainja is a Nyasa Times columnist. His articles appear every Wednesday on Nyasa Times. Other online websites also copy  from Nyasa Times and paste his popular column on their sites.

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