Fingers have pointed at Malawi Communications Regulatory Authority (Macra) as the architect of the disruption in the scheduled live television broadcast of estranged Vice-President Saulos Chilima’s address on Sunday evening.
Private broadcasters Zodiak Broadcasting Station (ZBS) and Times Media—had a rude awakening on Sunday evening when their widely publicised prime-time beaming of Chilima’s address was disrupted. While Times Television showed briefly Chilima’s address, ZBS TV faced an unexplained technical glitch that disrupted its signal.
Impeccable sources condided in The Nation that Macra director-general Godfrey Itaye personally called senior managers at the media houses and ordered them to instantly stop beaming the Vice-President’s address.
The Nation sources quoted Itaye as having said that Chilima could not make a “national address” without approval from President Peter Mutharika; hence, the broadcasters should not have given him airtime. Ironically, Chilima did not title his statement a ‘national address’, but ‘Remarks by the Right Honourable State Vice-President of the Republic of Malawi on the National Situation and Response to Covid-19’.
Yesterday, the affected broadcasters refused to comment for fear of reprisals from the regulator while Itaye pushed the issue to Macra communications manager Clara Ngwira, saying she was better-placed to explain.
However, she said she was on leave; hence, not in a position to comment. The other officer Mgwira referred The Nation to asked for a questionnaire, but was yet to respond as we went to press.
Reacting to the development, Sunduzwayo Madise, dean of law at Chancellor College—a constituent college of the University of Malawi, said Macra’s conduct was uncalled for and that the affected institutions can challenge the regulator in court.
He said it is surprising that there are still some public officers who defy the rule of law 27 years after the country embraced multiparty democracy.
Said Madise: “Macra must not forget that they are a statutory body, created by law which is supposed to serve the interest of Malawians.
“The question would be, are some Malawians not entitled to listen to the address of the Vice-President? Unless if he commits a crime.
“I don’t think these media houses wanted their stations to be switched off. They are scared because Macra seems to use its whip willy-nilly. But they [media houses] are entitled to go and challenge that decision to ask for judicial review or ask for some other remedy and the court would listen to them.”
He said Macra’s move has no legal justification and was only meant to silence the Vice-President who fell out with the governing Democratic Progressive Party and now leads UTM Party.
Madise said Macra and other public institutions should rise above petty partisan politicking when making decisions, observing that media houses have their freedoms provided in the Constitution.
He said: “Sometimes when making these decisions, they [public officers] must know that the people giving them orders today will not always be there. These things sometimes have a way of coming back to haunt you. As a regulator, they are abusing their powers.”
In a separate interview, Media Council of Malawi executive director
Moses Kaufa said he noticed the loss of television signals, but was yet to establish the cause.
He said the council will probe the issue and will act accordingly.
Minister of Information, Civic Education and Communications Technology Mark Botomani said he was not aware that Itaye and other Macra officials ordered media houses to stop the live broadcast of Chilima’s speech.
He said: “Nobody has complained to me from the broadcasters you are mentioning. I am hearing this from you for the first time.”
On his part, Office of the Vice-President spokesperson Pilirani Phiri yesterday said he was informed by some of the broadcasters that Macra ordered them to stop the live broadcast.
“It is very unfortunate that in this digital era a government can go physical to the extent of intimidating the free media,” he said.
Misa-Malawi Chapter chairperson Teresa Ndanga also said the media rights advocacy grouping was yet to get official communication on the disruption of service.
But she said the development is unfortunate, especially considering that Malawians have the right to access information relating to the global pandemic.
In his address, Chilima, among others, dared Mutharika to demonstrate leadership in the fight against the novel coronavirus pandemic by bringing on board all stakeholders to be part of an inclusive national response.
He also saluted healthcare workers for taking to the frontline despite resource constraints and appealed that their revised risk allowances should not be restricted to the period they are managing Covid-19 response.
In recent years, Macra has been faulted for acting with heavy-handedness on private media for providing alternative channels of communication to opposition parties while giving a blind eye to misgivings by the taxpayer-funded Malawi Broadcasting Corporation.