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Red Card for Malawian Media on Election Coverage
BLANTYRE, Malawi (PANA)- The truth, according to the Malawi media,
depends on where you are on the political spectrum.
The 15 June elections in Malawi, the second since the curtains fell on Kamuzu
Banda, the country's veteran ruler of 30 years, exposed the media as a bunch of
praise-singers ready to bleat according to the whims of its political masters.
Felix Mponda, a stringer for the French News Agency (AFP), says the Malawi
media, both the print and the largely state-controlled electronic one, failed to
articulate issues for the country's 10 million-plus populace.
"We do not have an independent media in Malawi," he says. "Almost all papers
in Malawi are either owned or controlled by politicians."
Mponda's resigned assessment is not not far-fetched. The country's most
influential dailies - The Nation and the Daily Times - are controlled by big shots
in the country's two main political parties, the ruling United Democratic Front
(UDF) and the former ruling, now main opposition party, the Malawi Congress
The MCP's most powerful politician, party vice president John Tembo, chairs
the all-important board of Blantyre newspapers which publishes the Daily Times
and its weekend sister paper, Malawi News.
Mabvuto Banda, a senior reporter at Daily Times, admits journalists at the paper
would have liked to be more independent. But it is all about who is feeding you.
"We can't write anything good about the government otherwise we will be fired,"
he told a roundtable debate chaired by BBC's Josephine Hazeley recently.
This prompted Hazeley, who was in the country to cover the elections, to
wonder whether Mabvuto and his colleagues should just be called the opposition
public relations officers.
But journalists-cum-PROs are not only in the opposition. Anderson Fumulani,
director of the Media Council of Malawi, says higher-ups in the UDF hierarchy,
including the president, pooled resources together to fund campaign tabloids
whose only mission was to articulate the government as achievers and the
opposition as villains up to no good.
"We had a bunch of characters masquarading as journalists who could only go
up to their offices, cook up just about anything and about anybody to advance
their masters electoral chances," he says.
Fumulani adds that at the end of the day it is the reader who suffered since they
were subjected to untruths before making their choices on the election day.
The government funded a sizeable number of papers most of whom have gone
into hibernation perhaps sharpening their daggers in readiness for the 2004
elections. These papers include the Weekly Times, The Citizen, Malawi
Todayand the Saturday Post, among others.
But it was not only the government that was villain in this +misinformation
campaign+, according to Fumulani. The opposition had its own, The National
Agenda, which thrived on sleaze.
Just like the government propaganda papers, The National Agenda writers hid
D.D. Phiri, a political and social commentator, says while what these papers
were writing were outright libelious and prosecutable, the government was
caught in web: it went into government on the premise of protecting freedom so
if it started jailing scribes its record could have been tainted.
While all these electoral gymnastics were going on, minority groups were
suffering. Mponda says small parties, who number more than 10, virtually went
to the polls without their policies publicised enough in the media.
"It was a question of who has the money," Mponda says. "The big three parties
(UDF, MCP and its alliance partners, the Alliance for Democracy AFORD) had
the money and the people to sing their praises while most of these small parties
Women were the most to suffer. Malawi is largely a male-dominated society
despite women making up more than 52 percent of the population, according to
Penelope Paliani, who writes a weekly column on gender issues in the Daily
Times, says newspapers gave women a raw deal in the run up to the elections.
"Because most editors, and indeed journalists, in Malawi are male, a
newsworthy women's article had to do with women involved in scandal," she
Paliani says it was until the country's women's rights activists started buying time
on the national radio to promote women in the campaign that women's issues
came to the fore.
Emmie Chanika, one of the country's leading women's rights activists, says
women had to mobilise a massive campaign to remind the media that there are
also women in the campaign.
"It was like women were not running," Chanika, who runs a civil rights body, the
Civil Liberties Committee, in Blantyre, says. "We used comedians and adverts to
campaign for the women vote which is unfortnate because the men had free
Stella Mhura, president of the Media Women Association of Malawi, says
female journalists mobilised among themselves to fight for the women.
But, according to her, female journalists discovered too late that male politicians
were using underhand tactics to decampaign their competitors.
"We discovered too late into the campign otherwise we could have devised a
counter-attack," she points out.
Mhura says where a male was pitted with a female, the male would
"manufacture" sordid tales, mostly involving sex scandals involving the female
candidate, and pedal them to the mercenary tabloids.
The Nation newspaper is largely a respectable journal, and is largely viewed as a
sober publication. But Aleke Banda, one of the senior figures in the Muluzi
administration, owns it. So, at the height of the campaign, it surprised many by
endorsing Muluzi and his UDF.
Editor Jika Nkolokosa, a respected journalist himself, admits that although the
practice of endorsing candidates was normal elsewhere, it was a new
phenomenon in Malawi.
"We knew people might misunderstand this but we assured our readers this
endorsement won't affect our editorial policy that is to be impartial and fair to all
and sundry," he says.
He claims his paper tried to highlight policies of smaller parties and special
interest groups, including women. But, he says, at the end of the day it was the
market that ruled the day.
On the issue of small parties, Norman Phiri, a sub-editor at The Nation, says
journalists in Malawi could not give equal prominence to small parties because
most of them were jokers.
"Some of these parties do not even qualify to be called parties, some of them are
made up of its leaders and that's it, so we can't waste paper on jokers like
those," he adds.
Indeed, none of the smaller parties made any impact on the polls but Kamlepo
Kalua, president of the Malawi Democratic Party, blamed the media for their
"Look, Malawi is largely an illiterate society, the only way people get news is
through the radio. So if the radio ignored our campaign material, how do you
expect somebody from deep in the bush to know that there is a guy out there
who, if given a chance, can do better than Muluzi, MCP president Gwanda, or
the leaders of the main opposition parties?," the bearded youthful presidential
So the elections is over and done with, but the soul-searching among journalists
has just begun.