Malawi Broadcasting Corporation needs Privatization, Not Reforms


By Lomuthando Nthakomwa

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The Malawi Broadcasting Corporation (MBC), the country’s official public
broadcaster since 1964 is often accused of promoting state propaganda in favor
of the country’s ruling party at all times of its existence. As Malawi recently
ushered in a new ruling party, which saw the appointment of a new cabinet,
including a Minister of Information, hopes are renewed regarding the future of
MBC; to what extent will the change in administration transform the MBC to
become a non-biased public broadcaster?
The new Minister of Information, Gospel Kazako, has spoken out regarding
MBC, promising Malawians that it will undergo a restructuring process to make
it a body truly serving the interests of all Malawians. While Malawians have yet
to be told what changes will be made, or what the transformation will actually
look like, the truth is that keeping MBC alive is needless and essentially
amounts to the poor use of taxpayers’ money.

While the idea of reforming MBC is commendable, we know that historically
there has been little continuity of policy between a presidential predecessor and
an incumbent in Malawi. A case in point is the much-heralded public sector
reforms championed by vice president, Saulos Chilima. As soon as he left DPP
in 2018, the reforms came to a standstill. And it wasn’t until he was elected
again under the Tonse Alliance led by MCP that the reforms he had begun
several years previously were resuscitated. Therefore, while the reforms could
culminate in a non-partisan MBC; this could only last for as long as the
Chakwera presidential term(s). There is no guarantee that a new incoming
administration would promote the neutrality of the public broadcaster.
It is no secret that government spending in Malawi is ridiculous, with the
country having a deficit in the budget yearly, which is subsidized by foreign aid
and loans. MBC is one of several dead weights that the government pumps
billions of Kwachas into, further entrenching the country’s precarious financial
position.

In 2018, the public broadcaster declared that MK108 million in non-
remitted taxes and other debt were choking its operations. It begged legislatorsfor an additional MK1 billion to cover the 2019 Tripartite Election, which at
least two other private broadcasters were also covering.
It should be emphasized that all of this is funded by taxpayers’ money, who,
unfortunately, the institution has not served particularly well in the past; If
previous behaviour is to be considered, MBC has only served the ruling party’s
and government’s interests.
Thus, MBC cannot continue to operate on bailouts from the government as
doing so is wasteful and only serves to divert funds from potential development
projects that would have a far greater impact on Malawi and Malawians.
But privatization may hold the key. The government rarely admits when an
institution has become obsolete, which the MBC has clearly become. So why
not sell it to those who can run it better?
The emergence of private broadcasters with larger audiences in terms of viewership than MBC has accelerated the decline of the need for a public broadcaster. The cost of keeping MBC alive is unjustifiable when all the public broadcaster has done is to promote political bias. And when there are other much promising state projects that are hungry for the same meagre resources.

If we are to move forward as a country, Malawi needs unbiased information from private broadcasters, not state propaganda from sycophantic institutions. The Government of Malawi would be serving the best interests of its citizens if the media was left in the hands of the private sector, or failing that, by establishing a Public private partnership that is run independently.

However, such a ‘privatization’ would need to be implemented well to be effective. There would be a need for an expert consultation process, the elimination of all of MBC’s debts to make it attractive on the market, and the proper institution of checks and balances to ensure journalistic independence, high standards of journalistic excellence, and the avoidance of corruption (or any appearance of it).


Lomuthando Nthakomwa is a writing fellow at African Liberty and a political
scientist working in the international development sphere. She is also a Young
African Leaders Initiative public administration fellow. She tweets via
@Thando_MNT.

STEPPING DOWN TO STEP UP: WHY MALAWI SHOULD FOLLOW IN MADAGASCAR AND CABO VERDE’S FOOTSTEPS


A RECENT REPORT BY THE INSTITUTE FOR SECURITY STUDIES (ISS) ARGUES THAT MADAGASCAR AND CABO VERDE HAVE EVENED OUT THE ELECTORAL PLAYING FIELD FOR ALL PRESIDENTIAL HOPEFULS BY LEGISLATING THE STEPPING DOWN OF AN INCUMBENT PRESIDENT PRIOR TO PRESIDENTIAL ELECTIONS.

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These two cases are singled out as they are anomalies in Africa’s political landscape, which is marred by what the ISS’s report has termed ‘Incumbency Abuse’.
In Malawi; no elected president had ever lost a re-election, since the nation became a democracy in 1993; until this year when Peter Muntharika lost to opposition leader Lazarus Chakwera. Often, incumbents have won by a meagre percentage (38.57% in 2019, 36.4% in 2014) not representing the choice of the majority of the eligible voters.

While the First-Past-The-Post electoral system partly explains this, a large reason for these candidates being re-elected as opposed to an opposition candidate winning the election is the incumbency advantage their position gives them to garner resources for political campaigning.
The report highlights that mandating presidents seeking re-election to step down before going to the polls removes an acting president’s access to state resources for political campaign uses.

In 2015, Malawi’s then deputy Mayor for Mzuzu City, Frazer Chunga, was cited in an article by The Times Group saying his official car had been grabbed by the regional committee for the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), of which former President Peter Muntharika heads, for campaigning use.

Such abuses would be easily mitigated by legislating the mandatory stepping down of a president seeking re-election prior to elections. Additionally, this would put all candidates on par, with the exception of an incumbent being able to show what developmental goals (if any) have been achieved nationally during their tenure.
Furthermore, the ISS finds that instituting a mandatory stepping aside of an acting president would assist in “addressing negative perceptions of voter manipulation and vote-rigging which have contributed to post-electoral violence and political instability on the continent [of Africa].”

This is of high relevance to Malawi as the country has gone to the polls for the second time in two years on the 23rd of June 2020.

Since Muntharika was announced re-elected in May 2019, Malawi had experienced a year of public demonstrations let by CSOs including the Human Rights Defenders Coalition (HRDC), who claimed that the last elections were rigged and highly manipulated by the incumbent. Thousands of citizens joined the HRDC in support of the protests, culminating in the Constitutional Court nullifying the 2019 poll in favour of fresh elections.

Thus, the stepping down of a president to avoid even the perception of tampering with the electoral process would go a long way in promoting post-electoral peace and stability and insuring that issues of malpractice are resolved independently.
The report however, does state that the stepping down of a president before an election, is not a fool-proof mechanism to mitigating the problem of incumbency abuse. Presidents are still able to control systems, making them work in their favor though not being in power. This being said, systems can always be improved, checked, and completely rewritten. As such, while being a concern, it does not negate the call for presidents to set aside their presidential duties until post-elections.
In a nutshell, with rising impunity and incumbency abuse in the African continent, the recommendation of the ISS for other African countries to follow the examples of Madagascar and Cabo Verde should be seriously considered by policy-makers if Africa is to truly work towards free and fair elections for all.

And while Malawi has broken the cycle of an incumbent president never losing, the ushering in of the new regime should not be viewed as the solution to all incumbency abuse. Let us see if when the time comes, Chakwera will be able to step down, to step up.