Public service broadcasters in Malawi have decided to defy the laws under which they were established by going commercial. They took the step after Parliament made a drastic cut in their funding, accusing them of bias in covering important political issues. Voice of America English to Africa reporter Lameck Masina reports from Blantyre that Malawi state radio and television remain public entities on paper, but for all practical purposes, they will now operate as private stations.
In September, Parliament cut their funding, providing only a symbolic allocation of one kwacha -- about one US cent. By law the Parliament cannot remove all financial support without holding a vote. Last year, it allocated only about half the amount requested for the budgets of the Malawi Broadcasting Corporation (MBC) and Malawi Television (TVM).
The opposition-dominated Parliament said the two state broadcasters were simply propaganda tools of the government. Sam Mpasu explains the Parliament’s action. Mpasu is the spokesperson of the opposition Democratic Front, which has the second largest number of representatives in the National Assembly after the opposition Malawi Congress Party.
He says “The opposition felt it necessary to cut them off out completely from any public funding. The reason is simple: MBC and TVM have been used as instruments of castigation of the opposition without giving the opposition the right of reply and we think this is …downright unethical, unprofessional not even worth the name of being called a national broadcaster.”
But broadcasters dismiss the accusations. The deputy director of the MBC, Bright Malopa, says opposition politicians often turn down requests for interviews. In fact, in a recent news broadcast, Mpasu spoke with a reporter about Mpasu’s reluctance to talk:
Mpasu: “Well, MBC have been very bad to me although you [the reporter] personally haven’t been. So I am not quite anxious to talk to MBC.”
Reporter: “So you can’t give us an interview; that’s what you are saying?”
The MBC has also been facing tough times in its bid to talk to the opposition leader in Parliament, John Tembo, who is also president of the opposition Malawi Congress Party. The media quotes Tembo as saying he was going to get even with the president for stopping Parliament before important issues had been addressed.
Among them was a move to declare vacant the seats of any legislator who had switched parties. Had the plan gone into action, the ruling DPP party would have had to defend in new polls up to 60 of its seats – likely handing a victory to Mr. Tembo and the Malawi Congress Party.
In the following dialog with an MBC reporter, Tembo denies that he was planning to take revenge against the government.
Tembo: “Who did I tell that I was going to [avenge]?”
MBC reporter: “It was in the [news] papers, Sir.”
Tembo: “I don’t give interviews on what is in the papers. I am asking you on the basis of your information, who did I tell?”
Reporter: “we would like to get the reactions on what the president has done.”
Tembo hangs up.
Mpasu explains his attitude towards MBC:
“MBC has personally insulted me twice. I gave them an interview and they distorted what I said, which I thought was totally unethical. So, I said no, these people are useless. What they want is to create a wrong impression of me by using their electronic tricks to make me say what I did not say.“
Prominent media analyst Levi Zeleza Manda says he does not blame those who refuse to give interviews to the state-run media and other groups that take quotations out of context, “The thing is this, if you interview me for an opinion and that opinion was completely misplaced, the next time, I wouldn’t be willing to come to you and respond.”
Berson Lijenda is the chairperson of the Parliamentary Media and Communications Committee and a member of the opposition United Democratic Front (UDF.) He asks why his fellow opposition members did not use their majority to amend the Communications Act, which gives government power to control the public broadcasters.
But former speaker of Parliament Sam Mpasu says asking for an amendment of the Communications Act is missing the point. He says the Communications Act, which was passed in 1998, took away all the powers that were in the hands of the minister of information or the president. He said it vested those powers in the Malawi Communications Regulatory Authority (MACRA,) which he alleges is doing nothing to discipline the public broadcasters.
Recently MACRA has been running advertisements in newspapers criticizing the behavior of some broadcasters.
Minister of Information and Civic Education Patricia Kaliati denies any accusation of bias among the state broadcasters. She says the broadcasters will only survive by going into business full time. Kaliati warned competitors to brace for tougher competition in the scramble for advertisers. The minister says even religious, health and other social programs will be paid for with advertising.
MBC has started accepting advertisements for its social programs, despite arguments by legal experts that it’s contravening the law that governs public broadcasting. For example, in one of its newscasts, MBC reported that the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF-Malawi) paid about 3.4 million Kwacha (about $25,000 US dollars) to the network for its social programs.
On the other hand, the law governing broadcasting allows only limited advertising and focuses on the “social responsibility” required of broadcasters that receive public funding. Some lawyers say the MBC act of 1964 also does not allow the network to go commercial. The broadcaster argues that the 1998 Communications Act overrules previous injunctions against advertising.
President Bingu wa Mutharika says despite the failure of the Parliament to provide funding, the two public service broadcasters will survive – with or without tax payer support, “TVM and MBC were established under the act of Parliament so there was no need to give them one Kwacha -- Why one Kwacha? One Kwacha is too much. It was better to give us without anything. But MBC and TVM will continue.”
But the opposition says it is ready to reverse the decision should the public broadcasters start doing their job in a professional manner. Some accuse the opposition of reversing themselves, but observers note that elections are coming in 2009, and some of the opposition candidates probably want to be sure their campaigns receive national coverage.