Africa, Headlines

POLITICS-MALAWI: Allegations of Media Bias Plague Election Campaign

Frank Phiri

BLANTYRE, Mar 2 2004 (IPS) - Accusations of political bias are piling up against Malawi’s state broadcaster in the run-up to general elections scheduled for May 18. In the latest salvo to be fired, a group of religious leaders has asked the courts to ensure equal air time for all political parties.

The suit against the Malawi Broadcasting Corporation (MBC) was filed by an organisation called the Public Affairs Committee (PAC). This group accuses the corporation of giving preference to the ruling United Democratic Front (UDF) in its pre-election coverage. Malawi’s sole television station – Television Malawi (TVM), also state-owned – is said to have a similar bias.

“The basis of our suit is to have the airwaves opened to all political parties,” says PAC chairman Boniface Tamani. “By doing that we shall level the ground and set a standard for the future whereby all political parties will be assured of equal coverage during every election.”

The PAC points out that rallies by President Bakili Muluzi and other senior officials of the UDF are covered live by the state media, and then rebroadcast in the evening. When the opposition holds similar meetings, these hardly get a mention in bulletins.

“The only time when the opposition is covered is when they’re quarrelling among themselves or contradicting each other,” says Lowani Mtonga from the Malawi chapter of the Media Institute of Southern Africa (NAMISA).

A number of donor countries seem to agree.

The European Union, United Kingdom, France, Germany and Norway have joined the United Nations Development Programme in issuing a statement on the matter. They say it is regrettable that TVM and the MBC are offering the public news dominated by reports which explicitly or implicitly favour the ruling party.

“We’re concerned that this unbalanced reporting by the only broadcasters with countrywide coverage, will have a serious negative impact on the chances of a free and fair election,” adds the statement.

However, TVM’s Head of News – Wellington Kuntaja – told IPS that the opposition was not getting much coverage because it had stopped inviting reporters from the station to cover its functions.

“They never communicate. They’ll always say ‘we (TVM) are UDF puppets,’ so we fear for our lives,” he said.

Kuntaja says that in a bid to ensure balanced coverage of the electoral campaign, TVM has joined a committee that includes the MBC, the Malawi Electoral Commission and the Malawi Communications Regulatory Authority. This group is developing a plan that will ensure no political party feels short changed by the state broadcasters.

The committee was formed last month after members from the four institutions returned from a tour of South Africa where they held discussions with the Independent Electoral Commission, the Independent Communication Authority of South Africa and the South African Broadcasting Corporation.

For her part, MBC Public Relations Officer Edith Tsirizani would only say that it was up to the Malawian public to give a verdict on the corporation’s coverage.

Journalism trainer Zeleza Manda of the Media Council of Malawi says political bias is nothing new as far as the country’s state media are concerned.

“The former Malawi Congress Party government had a strong grip on the media and that is what the UDF has inherited. The culture of press freedom and independent media has not sunk into the heads of our present politicians,” he told IPS.

Anxious not to be seen in the same light as the MBC, Malawi’s two national dailies are taking steps to emphasise their editorial independence.

Publishers of the Daily Times and its sister weekly, the Malawi News, have written a letter to journalists working for the publications, reminding them to be impartial in the run-up to May 18. And, the publisher of the Nation has issued full-page adverts declaring the paper to be non-partisan.

But, as media analysts have noted, the Nation is owned by the daughter of Aleke Banda, President of the opposition People’s Progressive Movement. This creates a situation where other parties might receive an unsympathetic hearing from the paper.

Similarly, the Daily Times could favour the ruling party. The publication’s Chairman, Cassim Chilumpha, is the UDF’s candidate for vice president in the upcoming poll.

“Those newspapers that claim to be independent sometimes tend to take sides,” says Innocent Chitosi, Research Officer with NAMISA – and a journalist who has worked for both dailies.

Adds Nichola Dausi, Publicity Secretary for the opposition Malawi Congress Party: “At the end of the day, all media houses will remain biased because of their ownership background.”

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