Malawi Electoral Commission (MEC) chairperson Maxon Mbendera was quoted in the media as urging President Joyce Banda to open up Malawi Broadcasting Corporation (MBC) so that it gives equal coverage to all political parties. He argued that the President was getting more coverage than other presidential candidates.
Many times discussions on MBC focus on government as the only problem. What is often overlooked is that MBC itself has a problem. The second problem is the regulator, Malawi Communications Regulatory Authority (Macra).
MBC shoulders the blame much more than government because it ignores the law which mandates the public broadcaster to level the playing field for all political parties. During the election period, MBC news coverage is governed by a number of statutes which include Communications Act and Malawi Electoral Laws. These electoral laws, which encompass Parliamentary and Presidential Election Act and Local Government Elections Act, are enforced by the Malawi Electoral Commission.
It is unfortunate that MEC is urging Banda to free MBC when MEC and Macra are supposed to ensure that MBC meets its legal obligation. To put it bluntly, Mbendera as MEC chair should take to task MBC management on why the institution is not observing the electoral laws.
Although the chief executive officer for MBC is a political appointee, he should be reminded that he has to observe the law and not to run MBC to please the President and the ruling party. It is institutions like MEC and Macra which should be in the forefront of ensuring that MBC is apolitical and professional
However, Macra is a very weak and highly politicised organisation. As a regulator, it is supposed to ensure that all broadcasters follow the Communications Act. But Macra treats MBC with kid gloves. It lets MBC gate away with so many biased stories in favour of the government, but quick to threaten or take action against small radio stations.
Recently, it fined Galaxy radio for airing unverified and false story about a company involved in “cashgate”. Yet, MBC has totally failed to fulfill its mandate as a public broadcaster as prescribed by Section 87 of the Communications Act. President Banda is covered on television and radio everyday even for insignificant events to exclusion of other players.
It is within the ambit of MEC to demand from MBC that all political players should have fair coverage of news in line with various statutes and democratic environment. MBC has lot of boring programmes that could be suspended to pave the way for special election-related programmes such as having political debate by various political parties. MBC cannot give any justifiable reason why Banda should be covered more than any other political party. Where on earth have you seen a president being covered everyday on TV and radio? Watch channels like SABC, Namibia TV and Botswana TV they do not cover the president the way Malawi TV does. In Malawi, it is just sickening.
Giving the President extensive coverage daily is tantamount to rigging elections because the electorate are hearing only one-sided election message to the exclusion of other political parties. MBC is not like any other media institution. It is the mirror of the nation and therefore should reflect the diversity of the Malawian society. That is why it is run on taxpayers’ money. It is supposed to offer platform for political discourse. People are entitled to hear messages from all political parties so that they can make an informed decision which political party to vote for.
If elections are to be free and fair, MBC should accord all political parties equitable news coverage in line Schedule 3 of the Communications Act. Macra board (not management because Malawians have lost faith) should oversee this process. Leveling the playing field includes covering live the launch of manifestos of various political parties. The electorate should only hear PP, but also MCP, UDF, DPP, UIP, Labour Party, PPM, Petra, Mafunde and so on.
Meanwhile, MEC should mobilise various stakeholders such as civil society organisations (involved in elections) and political parties and have an audience with MBC to ensure that it fulfills its public broadcaster mandate. It is the responsibility of everyone, especially for bodies like Macra and MEC, to ensure that MBC is opened up. It cannot be business as usual. If MBC does not change, the public, political parties and interest groups should exercise their democratic the right to demonstrate and bring about the much-needed change.