When watchdog turns cheerleader: The case of Malawi’s media policy reform

By Fletcher Ziwoya Scripps College of Communication-Ohio University

           In 1962, Jurgen Habermas, a German sociologist, wrote about a virtual community in the name of “public sphere” capable of shaping political power and policy. The Frankfurt School student was well ahead of his time and today his claims have been vindicated by the emergence of a non-state force that has wrenched power from world governments. The emergence of private media and corresponding technologies, such as the internet, has substantially changed how politics is conducted both at local and international levels. This article posits that where the media is allowed to flourish, it becomes a formidable tool in democracy consolidation, and the opposite is also true.
            Malawi has had its share of press muzzling in spite of claims on the contrary. This paper discusses the Malawi Communications Regulatory Authority’s (MACRA) modus operandi in the light of national, regional and international statues safeguarding freedom of information.
On 1st August, 1998 the Malawi government announced the initiation of a process to reform the media policy in the country. Malawi purported, inter alia, to liberalize the market and allow private sector participation in the provision of telecommunication services. The media policy reform initiative gave birth to the Malawi Communications Act of 1998 aimed at regulating the broadcasting sector. More than a decade after the media policy reform statement was issued leading to the enactment of the Communications Act, the Malawi government and MACRA are regulating the media in complete disregard for both local and international laws.
            Malawi’s constitutional stipulations demand that any media policy reform initiative should not have increasing information services as the only end product but rather, should allow these services to be as accessible and as free as possible. At regional level, treaties and declarations that guarantee people’s basic rights, including freedom of expression and access to information, include the African Charter on Human and People’s Rights also known as the African Charter. The international statue that binds Malawi is contained in the United Nations General Assembly’s resolution 59(I) of 1946.
            The polemics of freedom versus rights and the merits/demerits of media regulation are different issues altogether and is beyond the scope of this article. What is fundamental in both international law and most national constitutions is the recognition that when freedom of expression or access to information is restricted, it must be an exception rather than a norm. What has been typical in most Africa countries, however, is the arbitrary tight control of information and reluctance by governments to be criticized in the media.
            More than a decade after MACRA was instituted in Malawi, it is still under fire from both individuals and institutions for its pro-government bias and its restrictions on private media. One of the earliest examples of MACRA’s interference in freedom of information was when the regulator threatened to revoke broadcasting licenses of community radios for carrying news bulletins on their networks. On June 13th 2002, MACRA wrote the Malawi Institute of Journalism 90.3 FM that it risked losing its license if it continued airing editorial comments and bulletins on its airwaves. MACRA’s pronouncements were in stark contradiction to the provisions of the laws of the land that sought to guarantee freedom of expression and access to information. MACRA’s conduct only four years after its inception was an absolute antithesis to the ideals for which it was created in the first place.
            In a turn of tables, five years after MACRA’s proclamations, the United Democratic Front (UDF) now in the opposition, was given a dose of its own medicine when in April of 2007, MACRA gave a directive banning all private radio stations from conducting live outside broadcasting without the regulatory authority’s permission. The context to the situation is that Malawi’s former President, Bakili Muluzi, in power during the media policy reform process in 1998 sought to bounce back into politics as a possible presidential candidate of his party. As shareholder in one of the commercial radio stations in the country, he wanted his political rallies covered live on the commercial station much to the chagrin of MACRA.
            By restricting the performance and content of private stations, MACRA is not only failing to uphold the people’s basic right to information but it is also compromising its independent status. About regulatory bodies, the international law states that these bodies should be independent so as to avoid undue influence on their operations and to facilitate the much needed public sphere in a nascent democracy. MACRA’s compromised independence stems from, among other things, government direct control in areas such as the appointment of its members and the chairman. Unlike the situation in some African countries where the President appoints councilors to the regulatory authority upon recommendation by parliament after a public participation in the nomination process and a publication of shortlisted candidates, it is the prerogative of the Malawi President to appoint members of MACRA.
            This article is not an attempt to advocate for a free for all media in African countries. Un-regulated media would surely be like a runaway train, which would end up being more dangerous than useful to society. Justifications for regulating frequency allocation, conduct and quality of media houses and trading practices become obvious in this era of market economy. The questions that should guide this effort, though, should be; how should the media be regulated?; under what authority should the media be regulated?; to what end should the media be regulated? Whatever countries decide to do when it comes to information control, one thing is clear and that is the fact that, with the advent of a plethora of media choices such as the internet, TV-cellular phones, billboards and broadcast yourself possibilities, the age of public broadcast monopoly is but extinct. The sooner African governments realized this, the better for their political survival.
            Realizing the fact that information and communication is no longer the ambit of governments, there is all the more reason for permitting channels that will promote the fundamental democratic right of the citizenry. Justification for media regulation has been reduced to four rationales: 1) for effective communication; 2) to ensure diversity, both political and cultural; 3) for economic reasons and; 4) towards an effective public service (sustenance of a healthy public sphere).
            In short, for Malawi and other African countries to achieve robust media, there is a need for deliberate and genuine promotion of media pluralism, and the upholding of high professional standards for regulating bodies. History has proven that a fettered media ceases to fulfill its fourth estate role as a watchdog and turns into a cheerleader.


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