The Media Institute of Southern Africa (MISA), with funding from Open Society Initiative for Southern Africa (OSISA), recently organised a stakeholders’ workshop to discuss transforming Malawi Broadcasting Corporation (MBC) from state into a public service broadcaster.
This is one of the many workshops held to transform MBC. As expected, the issues discussed at the workshop were not new. MBC has always been used as a mouthpiece of the political party in power in spite of the fact that Communication Act (1998), which is still a good piece of legislation, outlaws the use of MBC by any politician for political ends.
MBC is a hopeless institution. The problem stems from three levels. At one level, there is political interference. The political party in power thinks that it has the right to use the broadcaster to the exclusion of everyone else. That is why all political parties that have been in power have used MBC for their political gain.
Each party has felt that it is their turn to use MBC for its own political agenda. Public institutions such as MBC run on tax-payers’ money, are a mirror of the nation and are supposed to serve everyone. This public function role is very clear in Sections 86, 87 and 88 of the Communications Act. The monopoly of MBC by political parties implies that they do not respect the law. Laws only work to the extent that people want them to work.
The Executive has usurped the power of the board. According to the Communication Act, the chief executive officer (CEO) of MBC is supposed to be hired by the MBC board. But the Executive has ignored this important requirement just to show people where the centre of power lies. This also defeats the purpose of the board.
We have seen how presidents have sidelined the board, the legally appointing organ, to appoint CEOs of MBC.
It is difficult to see how a person who is appointed by the president can be independent of the appointing officer. This has, in turn, created problems for the board to stamp its authority over the CEO. Naturally, the CEO is bound to listen to or please the president to keep his job more than the board or work professionally.
MBC itself suffers from a crisis of professional standards. Successive MBC management teams, especially CEOs, have failed to provide effective leadership to guide the employees on how to behave professionally. They have behaved as if they do not know professional ethics (or do they know?). They have allowed propaganda programmes such as Makiyolobasi and Road to 2014 Election to be aired to please those in power when there are far many important national issues that deserve airtime.
As if this is not enough, stories are told without balance and objectivity in favour of government. Government critics are rarely given a platform to air their views even when the Communications Act requires individuals to be given the right of reply.
Simple journalism professional ethics demand that stories have to be objective, fair and balanced. Watching MBC TV news or other programmes, one is quick to note that professional standards are appalling. Can’t MBC emulate other TV channels such as SABC and Botswana Television? This time around, MBC has started a programme that discusses the commission of Inquiry report on Bingu wa Mutharika’s death. The question is: Of what interest is it to Malawians? The report is already public, so why discuss it on TV? What is the motive?
The Malawi Communications Regulatory Authority (Macra) shares much of the blame for the unprofessional conduct of MBC because it has failed to stamp its authority over MBC to be professional.
This is understandable because the Macra CEO is handpicked by the Minister of Information (not hired by the board of Macra). This is a serious flaw in the Communication Act. Those who are reviewing the Act should ensure that the Minister of Information is stripped of the power to appoint the CEO of Macra. It should be vested in parliament. This will ensure that the CEO is independent of political influence.
MBC is a sick institution that will only be fixed by a political party that respects public institutions to operate professionally. This includes letting the MBC board appoint the CEO through interviews (as opposed to being appointed by the executive).
MBC employees should also work professionally and not become slaves of politicians. But this should start with management.