Malawi media at 50: Achievements and challenges

July 2014 is gone. A month that was littered with reports, essays, comments and analysis reflecting on Malawi’s 50th independence anniversary, time will tell whether any of it will help change direction of the country for the better. Conspicuously missing from these reflections is the media, the very vehicle that has carried these messages to the masses.

This dawned on me on 6th July after Gracious Mulinga, a Chancellor College student working with Chanco Community Radio, sought my views on Malawi media in the 50 years of the country’s independence. It is undisputable fact that media, particularly news media is integral part of any state. This is one of the reasons the media is referred to as the fourth estate of the government.

The history of Malawi media is as complex as the country’s political environment. It cannot be fully tackled in a single column entry such as this but there are significant pointers that provide a comprehensive understanding of the profession, just as the rest of the articles analysing various sectors of the march

Any analysis of Malawi media must take into account the fact that the country two distinct dispensation in its 50 years of independence. The first 30 years of dictatorship and so far 20 years of multiparty democracy. Media does not operate in a vacuum; they resemble and act in tandem with political environment of the day. This means Malawi has also had two distinct political environments in the last 50 years.

The often cited argument by the latter day leaders of Malawi is that the local media must be grateful for whatever freedom they enjoy today because there was no such a thing as freedom of the press under Kamuzu’s reign, as if there were any freedoms to speak of. Notwithstanding the latter point, the observation is correct but the argument is wrong.

You cannot expect media freedom in a dictatorship where civil liberties and personal freedoms are curtailed. This something that must be expected in democracies. Demanding kudos for providing media freedom in a democracy is, frankly, preposterous. Communications scholar, Dennis McQuail, observed that there has always been a tetchy relationship between mass communication and the conduct of politics in every kind of regime.

He noted that in totalitarian or authoritarian societies ruling elite use means of communication to ensure conformity and compliance and stifle state dissent while in democracies the media have a complex relationship with sources of power and political system in their quest to inform the citizenry on matters of national interest, as the media ought to.

Lack of media freedom under Kamuzu was cruel but in line with the regime of the day. In 1993 we voted against Kamuzu’s authoritarianism and media laws were liberalised in line with the new media environment. The implication of having one party state is that everyone shares ideology of that part by default. Under Kamuzu, the role of the media was simply to report on what Kamuzu and MCP hierarchy had to say and wanted reported. No need for media pluralism.

On the other hand, media pluralism is a must in democratic societies. They must take into account and try to represent as much diverse views and opinion as possible. In democracies, the media act as a connective tissue between citizens and their elected representatives. Traditional liberal media theory asserts that the media must provide a platform for public discourse and facilitate the formation of public opinion.

This must include the provision of space for the expression of dissent without which the notion of democratic consensus would be meaningless; media in democracies have a duty to inform the electorate to allow them to make informed decisions as they choose their leaders; media in democracies have a duty to promote transparency and hold public office holders and corporations into account. The list is endless.

These are among some key areas where analysis of today’s Malawi media must base on. Malawi media have made some great strides, especially providing checks and balances. Malawi has a small but vibrant press that is always willing to publish exposés and guard against abuse of power.

The worrying thing is the missing link between what is exposed in the press and any necessary action from respective stakeholders. This is manly because within the corridors of power media practitioners are still considered as troublemakers and not partners in guarding against corruption, abuse of power and agents of what is called good governance.

The notion of troublemakers may partly be rooted in the fact that the local media sometimes come across as overzealous in our pursuit politicians while we let corporation exploitation unchecked. Politicians are easy targets. For instance, statistics show that Malawi is one of the most expensive mobile phone rates but this is never questioned. Recently I read on Consumers Association of Malawi’s John Kapito pointing out that services from our mobile phones services are not good either.

Alongside poor understanding on its role as a watchdog, this owes it, in part, to political economical of the media. Everywhere in the world media are never entirely free from political and economic interests of the powerful. Tune in to any national radio or open newspapers, you will be greeted with mobile phone companies adverts, they are everywhere. I do not know how much local media make from it but I am sure it is substantial. It is often unwritten rule but only a fool bites a figure that feeds.

This is not limited to corporations. Government and its subsidiaries are perhaps biggest advertisers and they interfere. In 1999 Sam Mpasu, then a cabinet minister in Bakili Muluzi administration admitted to Article 19 that Muluzi administration had a policy of withdrawing advertisements from media organisations that were antagonistic to the ruling party interests.

In 2010 Bingu wa Mutharika government borrowed this policy to deny The Nation newspaper advertising revenue, as he saw the newspaper as hostile to the administration. These threats are real because media organisations thrive on advertising revenue, which most, if not all, news organisations would fold.

The increasing number of broadcasting stations and freedom to publish, online and offline somewhat obscures these points and paints a rosy picture of media pluralism in the country. Yet, this is not entirely the case. Media pluralism itself is often challenged by deeply underlying cultural and religious issues. Media pluralism does not only point to a big number of broadcasting and publishing houses but also diversity and range of views carried.

It was much easy for most Malawians to accept political changes but most people, including the media are reluctant to accept some cultural changes in our midst. Using phrases like Malawi is God fearing nation, national culture and tradition, Malawi has remained intolerant to subcultural and minority groups. Much of the reporting reflects these societal traits.

As I noted earlier, media workers do not live in a vacuum, they belong to the same societies they report on and it is not difficult to see why most of the media content appear to reflect on what reporters think the general public or the majority of the audience and readers wants to hear and see. It is not uncommon to hear media organisations boasting that they report what people want.

Fine, but not enough. Yet, it is also the role of the media to report what people need, and sometimes this means confronting uncomfortable truths and confronting received and accepted wisdom. The local media can do much better on this later point.

As much as media democracy is a game of majority, media content must not only reflect the perceived view of the majority. Media must always seek to dig and report the truth even if it means confronting majority views and going against the grain. To pity minorities against majority is equal to mob justice, not democracy.

It is not enough for the media to only present views of the prominent people such as cabinet ministers, senior men and women of religion etc. a balanced report must also seek and include views of minorities and subordinate groups. Give equal access to all groups, big and small, only this would we have honest and fair discourse on all issues of national importance from which equitable policies could be formed. As a media fraternity, let us build on our gains to promote an equitable and fair Malawi for all.

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