MBC is detrimental to democratic and progressive politics in Malawi

Any journalist worth the title knows that news can be created from any topic, it does not have to pass a textbook definition of news; the story does not have to be a fabrication either. One only needs to frame their questions carefully, and be clever with the choice of sources for the story. Always interview well-known ‘experts’ in the area you are writing on.

In Malawi university lecturers, mostly from chancellor college are particularly attractive to the point of being newsmakers themselves – these are people ‘in the know’. Using such sources does not only make the news story attractive, it also frees the reporter and their organisation from accusations of subjectivity and bias. Never mind that the sources themselves can never be objective.

All media organisations in Malawi and elsewhere have covered such stories at one point or another, knowingly or otherwise. No big deal, this is only a minor detail for many brilliant news organisations out there. However, for Malawi Broadcasting Corporation (MBC), it would appear this is a matter of policy than incidental. This defeats the role of MBC, a publicly broadcaster, as a public good that is supposed to be fair, impartial and open to all Malawians regardless of their political affiliation. It is its duty to entertain, educate and inform – the information and educational bit is particularly crucial in democratic societies, more especially developing ones like Malawi.

Yet MBC is an opinionator, always opining for a party in power, while passing the same as news. It is not an informer, informing the general public so they could make informed decisions on how their elected leaders are running the state. It is a ruling party megaphone – protecting the interests of the ruling folk. Owing it to its widest reach and its funding model, MBC is the greatest danger to Malawi democracy and progressive politics in the country than any other media organisation. It is not the constantly attacked new media that Malawians have to worry about; it is MBC. Yes, MBC has some important programmes on issues such as health, agriculture, education, etc., which most Malawians need but these programmes are not there to enlighten the governed on issues of policy, governance, economy and political processes.

MBC broadcasing house in Blantyre
MBC broadcasing house in Blantyre

On this point, C.W. Anderson, Emily Bell and Clay Shirky of Columbia Journalism School’s Tow Center for Digital Journalism, observed journalism that really matters

“… exposes corruption, draws attention to injustice, holds politicians and business accountable for their promises and duties. It informs citizens and consumers, helps organise public opinion, explains complex issues and clarifies essential disagreements. Journalism plays an irreplaceable role in both democratic politics and market economics.” 2013, p3.

On this MBC fails at the first hurdle, the recent court injunction obtain by Peter Mutharika against MBC on allegations of unfair reporting by the broadcaster is not new, insofar as MBC is concerned. As an out of favour Vice President, Joyce Banda  also sought a court order restraining MBC airing anything concerning her without giving her a chance to reply. Similarly, in 2011 Human Rights Consultative Committee (HRCC) also sought a court injunction against MBC for its attack on HRCC chairperson, Undule Mwakasungula.

That MBC is a ruling party mouthpiece is an open secrete. This has been documented beyond the aforementioned injunctions. Those that have seen electoral observers’ reports for Malawi elections since 1994 would know that even when elections are declare free and fair, the media, particularly MBC has always been found to be biased towards a party in power. This is against electoral commission’s set rules that says MBC should open up to all political parties at least 3 moths to elections. Here it is important to note that elections observers’ reports are usually recorded no more than two months to the polling day. Yet campaigning for a ruling party in Malawi starts on a president’s swearing in day. In Malawi, state and party functions are rolled into one. Political party colours, not national flag dominate state functions.

All this is not entirely because of MBC staff of course, I know some very capable people there that are genuinely frustrated but they stay because it is their livelihood, MBC is a political mess. It is not a coincidence that among Joyce Banda’s first appointments as state president was replacing Mutharika’s man at BMC with her own, flouting laid procedures for appointing a MBC Director General in the process. It is not surprising that on July 20, 2011 MBC was busy airing Bingu’s lecture while police shot dead and brutalised many more peaceful protesters demanding better governance.

Folks argue that private media also tend to back opposition parties. Bakili Muluzi family, for instance owns Joy Radio and the conclusion is that the station is clearly biased towards UDF and its candidates. This is correct but is it beside the point: these private institutions are not a public good that MBC is, so they rightly play by the owners’ rules. MBC is ownerless. All of us, through tax, pay for MBC. Therefore, MBC must look after all of us; including UDF members even thought they have Joy Radio. That is the thing about MBC.

MBC is in serious need of reform if Malawi as a country is serious about entrenchment of its democracy; entrenching democracy means giving people information that will help them make informed decisions about their leaders ability to govern, run economy, etc., leaders both in opposition and ruling parties, not giving people the ‘he said, she said’ reports from the ruling party; this is nothing but public relations, not journalism.

  • NOTE: Jimmy Kainja will be writing a weekly column on Nyasa Times, please make sure you check it every Wednesday.
  • Reproduction of this article is authorised, with usual acknowledgment.

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