I am writing to share some issues of significance to private media, as stakeholders in broadcasting, so that government may fully understand their concerns, views, needs and expectations and be in a position to respond coherently and appropriately.
Recognizing that the Malawi Broadcasting Corporation (MBC) will stop at nothing to continue introducing more programs to be run on commercial lines that bear directly upon the business goals for competition, I have undertaken the responsibility to bring to government’s attention the growing concerns of private media for a level playing field.
A government policy ensuring fair competition between public and private operators must also to discourage the existence of cartels and monopolies.
I would like to see government collaborating more with private media to ensure that there is successful implementation of broadcasting pluralism and diversity in Malawi where each partner needs have been taken into consideration and none is marginalized on the basis of legislative or institutional shortcomings.
My recommendations draw from the evolving African and global standards regarding media and broadcast media in particular and are largely based on agreements, conventions, charters and declarations regarding media that have been developed at regional and continental levels in Africa.Learning from others’ experiences
Bearing in mind that ‘those who forget history are doomed to repeat it’, I have reviewed experiences of other African countries which unfortunately made mistakes as they implemented their own broadcasting reforms.
For the government, knowing what others did, would help in developing a sound policy that would be accepted by those expected to use it. For key players in broadcasting, this would help them in providing input before policy is written. At the end of it all, we want to promote good working relationships between public and commercial broadcasting operators in Malawi and ensure that grievances by divergent operators about specific matters should be resolved fairly and quickly. Operators should be free to bring out grievances without fear of sanction. Background
Media organisations and civil society groups have been making the case that Malawi Broadcasting Corporation (MBC) is a public asset meant to serve the public and ought to be controlled by the public and not government; and that the current Malawi Broadcasting Act needs to be replaced with new legislation that would establish an independent public broadcaster with an independent board representative of Malawian society. Broadcasting practice, policy In Africa
Broadcasting is important in Africa because the majority of the people use it. It has the farthest reach and this medium has been the most controlled for political reasons across the continent.
This isn’t new. Colonial administrations, which introduced broadcasting to Africa, controlled it and used it for largely political propaganda purposes. Postcolonial African governments followed in their footsteps. Government operated on the belief that it was critical to achieving development objectives, fostering unity and
promotion of national culture and identity.
With the mentioned policy goals in mind, broadcasting was often located in Ministries of Information or Broadcasting and the state broadcaster was answerable and accountable to the Minister and the State President. This arrangement allowed the Minister and State President a direct say in appointments to boards, management issues and programming content in the ‘national interest’.
The national interest was often defined as or meant the political and policy choices of the ruling party. Rarely was there a reference to the ‘public interest’, which was more pluralist and inclusive. More often than not, these institutional arrangements violated the editorial and programming independence of the public broadcasters and turned them into state broadcasters.
The 1990s witnessed the beginnings of changes in broadcasting in Africa that have been described as ‘liberalization of the airwaves’. Liberalization of the airwaves is a reference to a process that has led to the emergence of private broadcasters and to a much lesser extent and in a very few countries, ‘community’ broadcasters. It has also included the emergence and growth of satellite and subscription or pay services such as DSTV. Contemporary issues, implications
In Malawi today, like in other African countries, government has made significant gains in building democratic systems of governance that are based on popular participation in public decision making.
Apparently, the demands for building such democratic systems have also resulted in new demands that MBC be transformed into the public service broadcaster so that it can also enjoy editorial and programming independence and that licensing of private broadcasters be made easy so they can operate as alternatives and competitors to the public broadcaster.
What this has done is challenge the government to come up with a broadcasting policy that takes into account the new reality. Essentially this means that government has to decide the number of players and their location.
However, because Malawi is a democratic state with a form of government which should allow its citizens an equal say in the decisions that affect their lives, some media lobby and civil society groups in the country have been pushing for their participation in the proposal, development and passage of the broadcasting legislation into law, in making sure that the law provides for free and equal practice of broadcasting pluralism and diversity in Malawi.
As a first step these advocacy groups aimed to organize workshops in order to promote a better understanding of the principles of public broadcasting both within their own ranks as well as in broader society. As a second step some tried to consider a broad coalition aimed at driving the process towards transforming the MBC into a public broadcaster. Ultimately, the coalition’s aim was to develop model policies for a new MBC including ownership, governance and funding to be discussed in a broad public consultation process. Past mistakes
During the past 10 to 15 years Africa has seen a dramatic growth in pluralism in broadcasting as more private operators have entered the market.
The growth hasn’t been without controversy. In some cases, there was a concerted effort to prevent others from entering the market. In cases where private broadcasters struggled to enter the market but later have became so powerful, they tried to marginalize completely the public broadcasters and threatened their very survival.
This could have been avoided if during policy formulation and legitimization, the government ensured a level playing field. Concerns and way forward
My main concern is within the interface between the two media target markets, namely advertising market and audience market.
Business can’t survive without revenue hence advertising. We know operators will put programs on the air that will attract a huge audience. Businesses want to place their advertisements where they know they will be seen or heard. At the same time, business while they are looking for revenue must meet their obligation of rendering information access to public.
The government should do more to promote the stability of a dual broadcasting system in Malawi, by among other things, creating a condusive environment for equality of opportunities and resources.
The government should be committed to increasing the capacity of all relevant actors, including the potentially affected ones, regardless of their legislative or institutional shortcomings. The government should, for example, seriously consider furthering the progress of diversification of commercial radio or television in Malawi, which continues to be hampered by the fact that the MBC monopolizes the country’s transmission networks and infrastructure.
The MBC should be made to allow access of other commercial operators who need to extend their broadcasting reach at a national scale using the already available state financed tower infrastructure in most of the prime high sites across the country.
The government should facilitate stakeholder cohesion by enacting only those broadcasting regulations that can help to safeguard the existence and development of the dual broadcasting system in Malawi.
Such regulations are necessary to have a certain balance between public and commercial broadcasting. Both sectors must remain viable and neither must be allowed to be marginalized or destabilized because only then can public broadcasters serve as a benchmark for quality for their commercial competitors. By the same token, that would allow commercial competitors to serve as a benchmark for operational efficiency which so far we know the public broadcaster lacks.
The government must know that economic policies based on greed have failed to generate prosperity. I trust our government will make sure that there is no such thing in Malawi.
----©2012 The Maravi Post. Reproduction authorised, with usual acknowledgment