With the World Press Freedom Day on Friday, is there any change to rejoice about Joyce Banda’s handling of MBC, which denied her a voice while giving DPP executives a midnight chance to delay her rise to presidency and conceal her predecessor Bingu wa Mutharika’s death last year? JAMES CHAVULAwrites.
Every working day, Numeri Lagson listens to his radio while selling cold drinks and confectioneries along Salmin Amour Street at Ginnery Corner, Blantyre. To him, this is not about radio shattering geographical, political and economic barriers, but a quest for information that helps him make his life better and take part in public life.
Listening to MBC’s Rhumba Time on Tuesday afternoon, Lagson minced no words about his search for impartial programming which Malawi Broadcasting Corporation (MBC) television and radios narrowly offer.
“I only listen to MBC for music programmes; I dislike other programmes because they tend to favour government and the ruling party. I prefer other private stations that air views of opposition leaders as well,” he says.
His opinion has been widespread as MBC has remained unchanged for about 50 years, despite calls for change and the optimism that followed the restoration of multiparty politics in 1993.
Save for minor shifts, its bulletins would make visitors think the country is a one-party State under President Banda and her Peoples Party (PP).
Of course, its airwaves were equally monopolised under United Democratic Front (UDF) founder Bakili Muluzi and his Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) deceased counterpart Bingu wa Mutharika. However, broadcasting journalism lecturer Ellard Manjawira reckons the station is yet to shed its political biases despite a slight improvement from Bingu’s extremes.
“The changes are very minor. MBC programmes and news content are still biased towards the ruling party. Opposition and civil society leaders hardly get the microphone to air their views on issues of national importance,” says the University of Malawi (Unima) lecturer based at The Polytechnic in Blantyre.
Having worked with MBC for over a decade before joining the academia, Manjawira says the broadcaster employs well-trained journalists whose professionalism sags under the pressure from political elites. Even those that have crossed over from independent media institutions have ended up being biased, he argues.
Concurring, National Media Institute of Southern Africa (Namisa) regional chairperson Anthony Kasunda says the culture of taking sides is so deep-rooted at MBC that some journalists censor themselves and suppress each other despite President Banda’s decree for the station to open up to alternative views.
“MBC has not changed in the past year. Unfortunately, political pronouncements will never make MBC neutral and balanced in its reporting. The culture of bias is so entrenched that it will take a comprehensive review of laws and policies to improve the situation,” says Kasunda, whose organisation is steering a process of making MBC a public broadcaster in line with the Communications Act of 1998.
However, President Banda, who admittedly no longer watches MBC because of Road to 2014 which used to castigate her before she became President on April 7 last year, feels it is “an insult” to say MBC sides with her party.
“I don’t watch MBC TV anymore but the other day I saw in passing that even [DPP presidential candidate] Peter Mutharika was covered during the party convention. Isn’t this opening up? What do you want me to do?” the President told journalists last week when Namisa requested her to sign the six-year-old Table Mountain Declaration of 2007 for African leaders to commit towards repealing laws that endanger press freedom.
While Bingu’s brother and other opposition figures sometimes appear “in passing” on the State TV and radios, PP’s convention headlined news bulletins and earned rebroadcasts for days despite beaming live for about three hours.
In fact, impartiality is not only about accommodating opposition figures but also the duration, depiction and prominence given to their newsworthy events and offerings.
The lack of balanced reportage was loud and clear the day the President revealed her allergy and approval for the station to Namisa. In its 8pm news, MBC was orange for 30 minutes with PP leaders—Kunkuyu, Abel Kayembe, Godfrey Kamanya, Transport Minister Sidik Mia—using their purportedly developmental travels to trumpet achievements of ‘Dr Joyce Banda’s Government’.
Thus, Banda’s defence of MBC mirror the country’s long walk to meeting the expectation of Lagson and other Malawians who need unbiased information to make informed decisions.
Lack of public confidence in MBC was clear when Parliament withheld the broadcaster’s budget allocation between 2006 and 2008. Similarly, the Electoral Commission accredited the privately owned Zodiak Broadcasting Station as the official broadcaster of 2009 poll results.
Even the President, who is entitled to full-length live coverage on MBC, entered this year with a vote of no confidence in the ‘mother station’—opting for ZBS to transmit her phone-in programme live from Chikoko Bay on the New Year Eve.
This brings into question the reforms she assigned Minister of Information Moses Kunkuyu to undertake: Transforming the country’s oldest broadcaster from ruling politicians’ mouthpiece that takes people for granted to a station that offers a platform for diverse opinions on issues of national interest.
On April 12 last year, Banda launched her first ministerial appointee with clear presidential orders to “tell the truth” and “respect Malawians” by, among other things, “making MBC a media house that should provide accurate information to the citizenry” and “nurtures democracy”.
As private radios build their audiences and cash in on MBC’s low ratings, the proclamations look like what they were—wishes of a leader who was not only a senior minister when UDF was abusing the broadcaster but also a vice-president who suffered its unfair programming during DPP’s rule.
The MBC Act of 1964 stipulates that the State-run station shall run programmes to inform, entertain and educate. Likewise, the Section 87 of the Communications Act (1998) requires it to provide public broadcasting services which do not only encourage free and informed opinion on all matters of public interest and to function without any political bias.
Surprisingly, even Banda, who endured ultra-biased content before DPP expelled her in preference for Peter Mutharika as Bingu’s heir, sees nothing wrong with her followers using the broadcaster for “creating a world of possibilities” for PP.
A September 25 2009 letter from MBC TV (then Television Malawi) shows that just months in the Veep’s office, Banda was already upset with how she was being covered.
“We are made to believe that our coverage of her has, by and large, left her bemused. We regret that as a station we have fallen short of meeting her expectations and it is our wish that we remedy the situation as a matter of urgency. However, to do so we need to clearly understand how the Vice-President wants to be reflected in our programmes and bulletins,” reads the propagandistic letter which also reflects the dilemmas of political elites present to reporters dying for press freedom at MBC.
As a matter of fact, Banda—who was booted out of DPP along with Veep Khumbo Kachali in December 2010—rose to the presidency with a string of unfinished legal battles, including an injunction restraining musician Wyndham Chechamba and MBC from airing a Road to 2014 programme portraying her as the killer or mastermind of the death of acting T/A Malemia in 2009.
But, like her predecessors, she has been reluctant to take decisive steps to deal with MBC’s slanted reporting and programming.
The apathy, emerging just twelve months into Banda’s reign, confirms that the more things change the more they remain the same.
As PP turns MBC’s silver screen ‘oranger’, it is clear that the President will not restore sanity by issuing directives or ranting.
By paying a blind eye to the institution, the president looks like the proverbial mother who wanted her baby bathed, but later threw the cleaned child together with the dirty water.
The President must put MBC back on the path to recovery by decisively supporting efforts to create an enabling environment for independence and professionalism.