If all ministries, departments and agencies (MDAs) were to operate with the same mentality as that of the new Malawi Communications Regulatory Authority (Macra’s), half of government institutions would have been shut down.
Electricity Supply Corporation of Malawi (Escom) would have disconnected power to over half of the MDAs for non-payment of electricity bills. They owe Escom K25.5billion. Imagine what Electricity Generation Company (Egenco) would do with the power it generates and currently sells to Escom, which owes it K57 billion by the latter.
The country’s five water boards would have cut water supply to most MDAs for outstanding water bills amounting to K30 billion as at December last year. Blantyre, Lilongwe, Mzuzu and Zomba city councils would have closed all properties owned by those who owe them a total of K14 billion.
The Malawi revenue authority would also have pounced on all companies with overdue tax remittances which run in billions of kwacha every month. I could go on and on listing MDAs that owe each other, or private firms that owe MDAs large sums of money for services or license fees.
What is for a fact is that it is not a sin for one to owe someone money. Any debts are part and parcel of businesses. It is the way businesses are conducted the world over.
But Macra has come with a weird philosophy and business model that is poised to throw many firms under the bus. Cash upfront or no license? This business model is, however, too harsh for many firms and has no room for small and medium scale businesses that are not sufficiently capitalized especially in the current difficult economic times.
Among such businesses are media houses such as television and radio stations.
Yet these entities have a huge role to play as the fourth estate in our democracy.
The Victorian writer Thomas Carlyle called the press the ‘Fourth Estate of the Realm’, with the clear understanding that the media acts as a sort of watchdog of the constitution and, as such, forms a vital part of democratic government. We all agree that the mass media should play a central role in sustaining and developing democracy by presenting a full, fair, and accurate account of the news. That they should inform and educate the general public, and they should cover a wide range of political opinions and positions (Keane, 1992). The need to nurture and grow this arm of government can, therefore, not be overemphasized.
It is against this background that (Macra’s) closure of Rainbow Television for not paying for its license fee in time is not seen in good light.
Indeed it does not sit well with the Tonse Alliance partners’ pronouncements during the 2020 presidential campaign that they would uphold and promote media freedom and freedom of expression once voted into government. What we are now seeing in the Tonse administration are traits of a regime intent on preying on the media to weaken it. How else would one interpret government’s silence on what the giant that Macra is doing to a Rainbow Television?
The point is that what Macra is doing to Rainbow today, it can do to any other media institution except MBC. This is an assault on privately owned media to silence them. The media should come together and rally against all efforts to be preyed on.
The Democratic Progressive Party administration under Bingu wa Mutharika also launched an assault on the media by amending the laws as well as shutting them down for outstanding tax remittances. It also stopped advertising with Nation Publications Ltd. We all raised our voices against it and it worked.
Macra is owed about K9 billion by television, telecommunication and postal services in unpaid television fees. Agreed, by any reckoning, this is a huge amount of money for which Marca needed to take drastic action to make the firms start paying the money. But revoking licenses should not have been one of them.
The long list of media licensees owing Macra millions of kwacha just shows things are not OK. My hope is Macra will reconsider its decision of shutting down media houses that owe it money.