The taxpayer-funded Malawi Broadcasting Corporation (MBC) yesterday begged from legislators, who accused it of bias, for an additional K1 billion for coverage of the 2019 Tripartite Elections.
In an apparent bid to strengthen its case for the funds on top of the K2.1 billion Minister of Finance, Economic Planning and Development Goodall Gondwe has allocated in the proposed 2018/19 National Budget, MBC director general Aubrey Sumbuleta committed to improve coverage perceived to be biased against opposition political parties.
During the joint Parliamentary Cluster of Trade and Industry and Media and Communications, the legislators asked the broadcaster to explain why it continues producing pro-government propaganda despite relying on funds from taxpayers holding divergent political views.
The members of Parliament (MPs) faulted MBC for its programmes, some of which directly attack some political leaders, especially from the opposition, who are never given a chance to be heard.
Kasungu East MP Madalitso Kazombo (MCP) asked Sumbuleta why the broadcaster airs programmes perceived to be bent on provoking some individuals and political groups.
He said: “Why does MBC have programmes like Sapita Kawiri which are not good? What was the aim behind coming up with such programmes? Are such programmes educational or informative? This is not good and there is need for you to change.”
In response, Sumbuleta, who led the MBC team, acknowledged that while there were problems with some of their programmes but, they are working to improve.
He said owing to widely-held perceptions that MBC is biased against the opposition, it is difficult for the broadcaster to convince people that it has embraced change.
Said Sumbuleta: “What people should know is that the problem has been rectified and, we now have a misconception that has made the public not to accept us to the extent of even refusing to give us an interview. [For instance] the MCP president [Lazarus Chakwera] doesn’t want to give us an interview for fear that we can twist the facts.”
He said the broadcaster has attempted to remove programmes that attack individuals and the public should appreciate that they are humans who are bound to make mistakes.
Said Sumbuleta: “MBC is not biased towards government. We are only fulfilling our mandate as a public broadcaster. The issue is that we have been grappling with this perception because over the years it has been planted in people’s minds that MBC is biased towards side A and side B. MBC has a mandate to entertain, inform and educate the nation and those programmes are done to fulfil those mandates.”
Media Committee vice-chairperson Godfrey Mukhondiya, who chaired the cluster, said the issue of propaganda has been discussed several times before. He said in the wake of the explanation, there was need to give the broadcaster time to improve.
He said: “I am hopeful they will gradually change.”
In February this year, MCP reported MBC to Malawi Communications Regulatory Authority (Macra) seeking intervention on alleged biased reporting and programming.
However, Macra, in a letter signed by its director general Godfrey Itaye, dismissed the complaint, asking MCP to lodge its complaint with MBC.
MCP described the Macra response as strange as the institution is mandated to act on media houses that flout provisions of the Communications Act.
Civil society organisations have also accused the taxpayer-funded broadcaster of bias and lack of professionalism.
During the first term (from 2004 to 2009) of president Bingu wa Mutharika, the then opposition-dominated National Assembly denied MBC funding, allocating it a nominal K1 over its perceived bias.
Currently, MBC is grappling with huge debts, including tax arrears owed to public tax collector Malawi Revenue Authority (MRA). It is estimated that MBC owes MRA K110 million in unremitted taxes.
In the 2016/17 financial year, the broadcaster told the same cluster that they owed MRA K4.5 billion tax in arrears and sought a government bail out.