Malawi's shrinking broadcasting space endangers democracy, fundamental rights-MISA Malawi
Over 250 full-time and part-time media practitioners and support staff have lost jobs at the stations whose licences have been revoked.
Malawi: The continued revocation of broadcasting licences by the Malawi Communications Regulatory Authority (MACRA) under the current political administration is washing away the media and democratic gains of the past 29 years, according to MISA Malawi Chairperson Teresa Ndanga in a statement released on Wednesday 24 August 2022.
MACRA issued two notices of enforcement action against non-compliant communication licensees on July 14 and 19, 2022, indicating that licences for 23 radio stations and six television stations may be revoked by the end of 2022.
MACRA has revoked the licences of three television stations and six radio stations for failing to pay annual licence fees since June 2022. Rainbow Television, Angaliba Television, Ufulu Television, Angaliba FM, Capital Radio, Sapitwa FM, Joy Radio, Ufulu FM, and Galaxy FM are among the stations.
The MISA Malawi Chairperson said the issues that are leading to the revocation of licences are not new.
“Past administrations did not close down stations for delaying to pay license fees. We believe the decision not to close down stations was due to respect for fundamental rights including media freedom, access to information and economic rights of hundreds of Malawians employed by the affected media outlets,” said Ndanga in the statement.
Ndanga stated that through various platforms and engagements, broadcasters have expressed concerns about MACRA's high annual fees, the fees being pegged in US dollars, other monthly fees that they have to pay to MTL and MBDNL, and the fact that business has generally not been smooth in the last few years due to the Covid-19 pandemic and the economy's general poor performance.
“Despite the engagements, MACRA, whose regulatory mandate also includes creating a favourable environment for the growth of the sector, has not done anything to address such concerns. Despite MACRA’s inaction, broadcasters made efforts to pay in instalments, but MACRA went ahead to revoke licences even where the final payments had already been made. This leaves us with questions on MACRA’s real intentions,” she said.
According to the MISA Malawi Chairperson, over 250 full-time and part-time media practitioners and support staff have lost their jobs at the stations whose licences have been revoked, which include Rainbow Television (70), Ufulu FM (34), Joy Radio (40), Capital Radio (45), and others from Sapitwa FM, Galaxy, and Angaliba.
“This is happening at a time the Chakwera administration is championing an agenda of job creation and preserving the available ones through the Ministry of Labour, which has unfortunately remained silent,” said Ndanga.
Ndanga claims that this is also happening as businesses try to rebuild after a devastating Covid-19 pandemic that affected many businesses, including the media.
She said businesses have also been struggling to survive the country's economic difficulties, which has clearly resulted in the devaluation of the kwacha by a historically high percentage of 25%.
Ndanga stated that on July 2, 2022, MACRA issued a communication suspending the issuance of broadcasting licences and broadcasting frequencies due to the saturation of the FM band.
She said, at the same time, MACRA has gone on a licence revocation spree based on late licence fee payment, even refusing to accept funds that have already been paid.
The MISA Malawi Chairperson said it is easy to interpret the revocations as an attempt by MACRA to make room for new stations.
She said: “ MISA Malawi worries that where that happens, MACRA’s objectivity in issuing licences that would be critical of the current administration becomes uncertain. The media diversity & pluralism that the country has enjoyed before the current administration came into office is now under threat.”
According to Ndanga, Malawi's Media Freedom ranking by Reporters Without Borders has already declined for 2020. Malawi, which rose in the rankings last year as a result of the passage of its access to information law, fell from 62 to 80 out of the 180 countries evaluated.
“The closure of radio and television stations threatens to lead to a further decline in the ranking and put a dent on President Chakwera’s administration, especially when looked at from the lens of the campaign promises and the circumstances that led to President Chakwera’s election,” she said.
MISA Malawi's Chairperson stated that the organisation respects MACRA's statutory mandate as well as broadcasters' obligations under Malawi's Communications Act and other relevant laws.
“However, the closure of broadcasting houses is threatening the broadcasting and democratic gains that the country has made since the reintroduction of the multiparty system in 1993,” she said.
She stated that Malawi has been a model country for pluralism and diversity in the broadcasting sector, but that all of that is eroding.
“We cannot underestimate the impact of these revocations on access to information for Malawians, media freedom and the economic well-being of those people losing jobs in the closed stations,” Ndanga said.
MISA Malawi, she said, reiterates its recommendation for a win-win situation for MACRA, broadcasters, and citizens.
Ndanga stated that they would like to ask MACRA to reverse the decisions being made because they are not only retrogressive but are systematically killing the democracy that they have worked so hard to build.
She said: “We recommend a measured approach considering the fact that the affected media houses already started clearing their outstanding arrears. Revocation of a licence is too drastic and reactive. There is a need for a holistic and proactive approach to ensure that the media survives to post the Covid-19 pandemic.”
“We again reiterate our call for more dialogue and progressive approaches on how the stations can settle the accumulated licence fees while operating and providing platforms for democratic discourse.”