Malawi: Mass media

Extracted from: Catherine Musuva 2009 "Chapter 7: Malawi" IN Denis Kadima and Susan Booysen (eds) Compendium of Elections in Southern Africa 1989-2009: 20 Years of Multiparty Democracy, EISA, Johannesburg, 237-238.

The PPEA [Parliamentary and Presidential Elections Act, 1993] states that every political party is entitled to have its campaign reported on by the Malawi Broadcasting Corporation (MBC) and in any newspaper in circulation in the country. Furthermore, the Act commits the MBC to neutrality in the reporting of news. The Act also empowers the MEC, by arrangement with the MBC, to allocate time on the radio to political parties. Although the Act prohibits political parties and candidates from making commercial advertisements for campaigning in the MBC, all political parties either placed commercial advertisements with the MBC or complained of a lack of financial resources to do so in the run-up to the 2004 elections. At the time, neither the MBC nor the political parties seemed to be aware of the law in this regard.

The electronic and print media coverage of electoral campaigns in Malawi has generally been extensive. However, concerns over unbalanced media coverage and the unfair use of the state media, namely the MBC and Malawi Television (TVM), have been raised in all four elections held from 1994 to 2009. In order to ensure better-balanced media coverage of the 2004 elections, a number of steps were taken in collaboration with political parties, the MEC, CSOs and the donor community. Most importantly, a media monitoring unit was established within the MEC. Nonetheless, in the 2004 elections the MBC coverage was biased towards the incumbent party, the UDF (Rakner & Svasand 2005).

Some private radio stations, however, provided voters with more balanced information, and the two major daily newspapers, The Nation and The Daily Times, were more critical of the government. The weekend papers, Weekend Nation and Malawi News, favoured the Mgwirizano Coalition and concentrated on news stories that discouraged voters from supporting the UDF/Aford/NCD alliance. The circulation of newspapers is confined mainly to the cities of Lilongwe and Blantyre, while 85 per cent of the Malawian population reside in the rural areas where radio is the most accessible of the mass media. The MBC radio has the widest coverage.

The monopoly of the MBC by the ruling party during the 2004 campaign period was an issue that came to a head towards the end of the campaign period. Although the opposition parties succeeded in their application to the courts, the court rulings had little effect on state-owned media. The MEC confirmed the unbalanced manner in which the MBC and TVM covered the campaign and argued that it had no powers to sanction the public media. The Malawi Human Rights Commission observed that inequitable access to MEC and TVM were still impediments to free and fair elections in Malawi.

The run-up to the 2009 elections saw a repeat of trends in the 2004 media coverage. According to the Malawi Regulatory Communications Authority (Marca) weekly reports, MBC and TVM favoured the DPP, giving it 93 per cent and 96 per cent coverage respectively, on average. The Independent Media Monitoring Unit Report of the MEC covering the period January to April 2009 found that public television and radio, as well as Joy Radio (owned by UDF's Muluzi), had operated on the assumption that ownership or control of the airwaves gave them the right to use the resources virtually exclusively to the benefit of one or other party. According to the MEC report, Zodiak BS, Capital FM, Star Radio and MIJ FM radio stations and The Nation and Daily Times newspapers lived up to the principles of balanced, fair journalism as set out in the media code of conduct that they signed. The MEC once again accused the state-owned media of bias and not abiding by the media code of conduct. The MEC chairperson berated the state media for failing to level the playing field, adding that the MEC's hands were tied in dealing with the situation as the law does not provide it with any significant power (Kasawala 2009).

Code of Conduct for 2019 Elections

In 2019, various media organisations signed a Media Code of Conduct for Reporting on the Tripartite Elections. The Code recognises the importance of the media in promoting free, fair and credible elections. The Code states "the entire electoral process shall provide information that ensures that voters make informed choices". The Code outlines the role of the media including providing fair coverage, comprehensive, accurate and reliable information. The Code also writes that the media shall scrutinize the electoral process itself in order to "evaluate the fairness of the process, its efficiency and probity" (MEC 2019).

The Code writes: "as the Fourth Estate the media are expected to (MEC 2019):

  • Ensure that journalists are familiar with the national legislative framework governing the electoral process…including those that govern;
  • Be Familiar with national, regional and continental principles and benchmarks on election coverage;
  • Provide platforms for accessing information that enable informed choice;
  • Provide a respectful and a level playing field for equal political participation by all citizens;
  • Provide information that, as far as possible, avoids inflammatory language, slanderous, malicious and hate speech, thereby helping to prevent election related violence."

The Code also includes conditions in terms of what the media, in turn, is entitled in order for the media to be as effective as possible. These conditions include not obstructing media personnel from conducting their work, providing media houses enough resources for effective election coverage, enjoying unfettered editorial independence from candidates, political parties and outside organisations alike as well as fair access to polling stations. Furthermore, media are entitled to (i) be in an environment free from intimidation (ii) protection from perpetrators wishing to attack media personnel (iii) whistle-blower protection and (iv) access to grievance procedures (MEC 2019).

The Code stresses the need for balance and impartiality by both public and private owned media organisations and that news, interviews, and information programmes are covered in such a manner that is compliant with Section 20 (i) of the Constitution of the Republic of Malawi (MEC 2019).

References

KASAWALA, T 2009 "Msosa tears MBC, TVM apart", The Nation, 19 May.

MALAWI ELECTORAL COMMISSION "Media Code of Conduct for Reporting Tripartite Elections 2019"

PARLIAMENTARY AND PRESIDENTIAL ELECTIONS ACT, 1993.

RAKNER, L & SVASAND, L 2005 "Maybe free but not fair: Electoral administration in Malawi 1994-2004", Norway, CMI Working Paper.