By Fr Jailos Mpina*
Is it only me who sees the media in Malawi being captured by the Tonse Alliance government? Agree to disagree with me that the appointment of media scribes such as Brian Banda to State House machinery and Gospel Kazako, founder and engine of Zodiak Broadcasting Station (ZBS), to minister of information, has shaken media trust, independence and threaten its watchdog role to hold public and state machinery accountable.
Media giants, namely Times Media Group and ZBS have been influential to media professionalism in Malawi. Now, it is a different story. It appears the media in Malawi is politically captured. Independent journalism is struggling to survive in an increasingly captured and polarized environment where journalists and media owners shy away from their noble role and wine and dine with political comrades – nailing editorial independence on the cross.
Capture is a term from economics that describes what really takes place when regulators become overly empathetic or supportive of those they are meant to be regulating. Associated with economist George Stigler’s seminal “The Theory of Economic Regulation” (1971), the term was commonly used after the financial crisis of 2008 to describe, for instance, how financial regulators failed to properly regulate the very banks and financial institutions that caused the crisis.
Professor at Columbia University, Joseph E. Stiglitz stipulates that by analogy, media capture occurs when one or more of the parties that the media are supposed to be monitoring on behalf of society “captures” or takes hostage the media, so that they fail to perform their societal function. Media get captured through ownership, financial incentives e.g. chequebook journalism, censorship, cognitive and other subsequent consequences.
Simply put, it is the overpowering control of media by governments and powerful interest groups. As a result, it leads to a shrinking journalistic independence and professionalism, and contaminates the integrity of the news information that is available to the public.
Commentators and media analysts are dismayed by government’s ploy to woo independent, critical and investigative practitioners and offer them lucrative jobs in government. They want the profession to have brave journalists such as Times Media Group managing editor George Kasakula and BBC’s late Raphael Tenthani who questioned the motive behind giving journalists envelopes containing K50,000 in what was widely criticized as a bribe during a dinner organised by former president Peter Mutharika for the media practitioners at Sanjika Palace. Kasakula returned the money right away while Tenthani donated the money to an orphanage.
Chancellor College political scientist, Professor Mustafa Hussein notices that the media capture by the Tonse Alliance government and other interest groups is posing the danger to investigative journalism, professionalism and integrity.
“What is critical here is the professionalism of the media houses. It is important that the media houses remain professional and non-partisan. Media capture may pose a danger to investigative journalism. The tendency is that journalists should be pro-government and in so doing, fail in informing the public of any mal-administration activities and corruption because they are in the arm pits of the government,” Hussein says.
University of Livingstonia political analyst Professor George Phiri observes that Times Media Group and ZBS have been incapacitated to perform independent news coverage unless a strong character will suffice.
“It looks like now Times Media Group and ZBS are biased towards government, the situation that I would describe to be unfortunate because they were supposed to be independent in order for Malawians and the world over to get balanced news on Malawi. Unless we find a very strong character within these two institutions to bring in balanced news, I am seeing these two institutions working just like MBC.
“And if that will be the situation, I would say it is very unfortunate because Malawians will not have balanced news. I am about to say that the government on this matter has not done well. They should have left these institutions alone as private and let them work as that,” Phiri says.
It suffices to mention that George Kasakula [who is still at Times Media Group despite rumours associating him with a move to state-controlled Malawi Broadcasting Corporation], [Brian] Banda and Kazako played a key role in these media institutions.
It is commendable as to how Kazako as minister of information is engaging mobile telecommunications network operators to reduce the exorbitant data bundles and airtime charges. Nevertheless, his embroidered footprint and shares at ZBS compromises its editorial independence. Kazako has insisted that he does not interfere in the day to day operations of ZBS.
When truth is perceived through partisan lens, the public holds low levels of trust in the media. According to the most recent baseline study of MISA –Zambia (2019-2020) on trust in the media in the Southern Africa Development Community (SADC) region, specifically in Malawi, Zambia and Zimbabwe, trust in the news media can be considered to be hierarchical factor that consists of four lower order factors which include trust in the selectivity of topics, trust in the selectivity of facts, trust in the accuracy of depictions, and trust in journalistic assessments.
Evidence from the research indicates that when public holds low levels of trust in the media, it is more likely to turn to partisan sources.
Hussein suggests that government should strive to create an environment where the media is free – free in everything. Again, for him the government should intensify intensive training to media practitioners so that they are equipped with skills for objective reportage.
Social and political commentator, Emily Mkamanga corroborates by highlighting the need for the government to train presenters and reporters in community media houses.
“Let the government through the Minister of Information enhance training to community radio institutions. Media is not a place where anyone can be employed. Some of them do not know how to ask questions. Let the journalists be competent and aggressive. They must be critical to studies, research and investigate issues. Journalists must be credible and take up the space left by Kazako and Brian Banda for example,” she explains.
Private media houses in the country should come in quickly to address and bridge the gap created by the government which has paralysed the opposition and the private media houses.
Livingstonia’s Phiri succinctly recommends that the opposition and private media houses must strongly empower themselves to monitor government’s performance to the expectations of Malawians. He adds that the gap of media capture that has been created by government should be a blessing in disguise to journalists and private media houses.
Further, journalists should desist from chequebook journalism. Acceptance of free-bees and incentives such as gifts may compromise their ability to professionally investigate and report issues objectively.
For University of Malawi’s Hussein, allowances should be justifiable and media houses should strive to provide necessary resources to journalists. Media outlets and journalists should fully adhere to editorial policies and abide by ethical and professional standards.
To crown it all, the pressure on editorial independence has proliferated in the political history of Malawi since independence and its pervasiveness of media capture by government and politicians is a nuisance. Let the media be free to play its societal function as the ‘fourth estate’ rather than becoming part of an echo chamber that amplifies and solidifies the interests of the powerful few – oligarchs.”
*Fr Mpina is communication manager at Montfort Media and deputy director responsible for programmes and operations at Luntha Television. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org