Malawi: Chakwera’s media crackdown raises alarm

By Deogracious Benjamin Kalima
Posted on Wednesday, 14 September 2022 15:32, updated on Thursday, 15 September 2022 15:14

Malawi's President Lazarus Chakwera (photo: twitter)

In what has been described as an unprecedented act and shrinking of the media space, the Malawi government has shut down three television and six radio stations on failure to pay annual licence fees. These closures by President Chakwera's government has many wondering if the country's freedom of speech is being tested.

More than 20 other radio stations face closure by the end of the year, thereby threatening job security of about 250 media practitioners and around 150 support staff at the media houses.

Through its broadcasting regulatory body, Malawi Communications Regulatory Authority (MACRA), the government has been shutting down media houses accused of failure to comply with their licence conditions, one of which is payment of annual subscription fees.

Television and radio stations that have been closed so far include Rainbow TV, Angaliba TV, Ufulu TV, Galaxy FM, Angaliba FM, Sapitwa FM and Joy FM.

However, one of the closed media houses, Rainbow Television, was shut down despite having paid all the outstanding licence fees of about $10,000. The station manager, Aubrey Kusakala, says they paid the fees on 20 June.

‘MACRA did not want us to exist at all’

According to Kusakala, MACRA wants to cease operations of Rainbow Television.

“[…], it appears MACRA did not want us to exist at all. We paid the outstanding amount on time and they acknowledged it, only to withdraw it two months later. This shows they purposely ignored us and wanted us out of the Malawi media space. This action is certainly politically motivated,” he says.

Rainbow Television has been one of the media houses that has been airing the current regime’s failures through its news, current affairs and phone-in programmes, which is why there is suspicion of government’s heavy handedness as a response to the station’s critical and analytical programmes.

Shrinking media space

Meanwhile, a media freedom advocacy group, Media Institute for Southern Africa in Malawi (MISA-Malawi), says the closures are shrinking the media space and washing away freedoms and democratic gains attained over the last three decades.

Mandy Pondani, vice chairperson of MISA-Malawi, says the regulator’s decision to shut down Rainbow TV and other media houses is unprecedented in the history of 29 years of a democratic government and that the current regime should remember the role media played for it to be in power.

The closing down of media houses of this magnitude has never happened in the country

“The closing down of media houses of this magnitude has never happened in the country. This does not reflect well on the current regime whose ushering was greatly helped by the media coverage during and after the landmark 2019 elections case,” she says.

Pondani adds that the closure of the media houses contradicts the government’s own goal of creating 1 million jobs for Malawians.

“Apart from journalists, we have camerapersons, sound engineers, technicians and marketers who will all be affected as well as their families and relati[ves] who[se] livelihoods depend[…] on these people,” she says.

Selective application of rules?

However, MACRA insists the shutdowns have nothing to do with press freedom or political manoeuvring as alleged by its critics, but rather stipulated conditions attached to broadcast licenses, which it says must be duly followed by all licensees.

In an interview in June, Zadziko Mankhambo, communications manager for MACRA, said the closed media houses are free to apply for new licences once they pay all their outstanding fees.

“As a regulatory body, we simply enforce[…] laws to non compliant media houses and we do not have any plans to reverse whatever decision we took unless there are changes to laws which we are enforcing. However, the affected media houses are free to apply for new licences after they have fully paid all the outstanding money.”

Analysts have faulted MACRA for selective application of laws and regulations by penalising private media houses while leaving out state broadcaster Malawi Broadcasting Corporation (MBC), which also owes some money in outstanding licence fees.

However MACRA claims MBC recently settled its all outstanding licence fees and the state broadcaster owes nothing to the regulator prompting a human rights organisation, Forum for National Development (FND) through their lawyers, Adrian & Company to ask the regulator to make public the transaction details of the licence fees payment by MBC.

The attorneys, in a letter addressed to the regulator, said being public entities funded by taxes paid by Malawians, MACRA and MBC must make the documents public. However, MACRA in response through their director general, Daud Suleman challenged the law firm demand saying it lacked legal basis.

“Any request made to the Authority should cite the legal basis under which such request is being made or risk not being entertained. It is the Authority’s considered view that, unless pursuant to a court order, a request for information from a state entity such as MACRA, is supposed to be premised on Section 37 of the Republican Constitution as read with Section 37 of the Access to Information Act,” he said.

A communications expert and scholar, Jimmy Kainja, says while he finds no problem with MACRA’s action on taking on non paying media houses, he  thinks the regulatory body is not doing well in the area of facilitation of provision of affordable communication services and encouraging citizens participation, which are also its mandate.

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