That the State broadcaster, Malawi Broadcasting Corporation (MBC) has been a struggling news media institution financially over the years is well documented. It is equally known that MBC has been used as propaganda machinery of all the governing political parties since Nyasaland became Malawi. But to learn that MBC’s top hierarchy sat in meetings to strategise and approve the financing of the importation of soap operas, using millions of public money, is gut-wrenching to say the least. It is a mockery to our cultural heritage.
According to Weekend Nation of October 24 2015, in 2013, MBC paid K57 million to a South African-based Malawian firm, Thuso Group, to enable some cultural products vis-à-vis soap operas that are aired on South Africa’s e-tv be relayed on MBCTV. The soaps named are Rhythm City, Scandal and World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE). The deal never materialised and the Malawian public money was not paid back. Nonetheless, this article is about MBC as a public broadcaster and the decision to “import” foreign cultural products.
MBC, just like most broadcasters in the Commonwealth, are established on the public service model of the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC). Among other elements, this entails a public broadcaster expressing national and regional identity in its programmes. Additionally, such a broadcaster should tap from the nation’s best cultural resources such as history, music, literature and drama. This leaves me bewildered because Rhythm City and Scandal are soap operas whose story lines relate to gangsterism, drugs and homosexuality in the South African city of Johannesburg. With transnational media corporations such as Multichoice, such cultural products are accessible through Digital Satellite Television (DSTv) in Malawi. My argument here, however, is that the futile and costly attempt by MBC management to fuse these cultural products into the Malawian public service broadcasting system has profound implications for the Malawian society and its cultural heritage.
We have such rich and talented actors in Malawi and a growing film industry that needs nurturing to further develop and yet we want to promote foreign cultural products through a broadcaster funded by the Malawian public? The media are the focal point in the reflection of varying cultural contexts and everyday life. This is observed, for example, through the BBC soapie EastEnders which depicts largely pub life in the East End of London.
Watching soap operas ought to reflect our own identities as Malawians, not what the MBC management were willing to pay Thuso, using public money for.
For this to be realised, MBC management ought to tap local talent and screen soaps that are produced by a Malawian multi-media production firm and not do it themselves. This is the way it is done the world over. For instance, South Africa’s most popular soap, Generations, the Legacy is produced by MMSV Productions. In the Malawian context, engaging a local multi-media company in the production of soap-operas will not only be a platform for job creation but also an avenue for cultural heritage promotion. We could watch our own people, our own food, our own dressing and other architectural artifacts portrayed through the soap storylines. Malawian companies could also use the soaps to promote locally produced consumer goods.
Where do we go from here? The diffusion of transnational television programmes into the Malawian media domain such as the soaps mentioned in the foregoing should not leave local TV producers in a scramble for audiences at the expense of our cultural heritage. It beggars belief that a public service broadcaster such as MBC was in the forefront promoting cultural imperialism.
For such an irresponsible costly decision, I urge our MPs, with the Parliamentary Committee on Media and Communications at the helm, to further probe this case. In my opinion, the fiasco further bears all the hallmarks of the interests of the Anti-Corruption Bureau. n
The author is a lecturer in media, communication and cultural studies at Chancellor College. Currently, he is based at Stellenbosch University on a journalism doctoral research project.