I read with interest a comment by Malawi Electoral Commission’s (MEC) Chairperson, Justice Jane Ansah that the commission is not going to have an official broadcaster for the May 21 Tripartite Elections, as it was the case during the 2014 elections.
Ansah was quoted by The Daily Times of Monday February 18 2019, saying the decision has been arrived at because “the commission has considered that the broadcast industry has undergone a metamorphosis in the past years and the reasons that warranted the issue of official broadcaster no longer exist.”
She added: “Stakeholders should note that, during the polling and results management, if they hear announcement of results on a radio station or television by a MEC commissioner or official, then they should take that as an official communication.”
It is telling that Ansah made this comment at a meeting where Malawi Broadcasting Corporation (MBC) was rightly taken to task by various electoral stakeholders for its bias political coverage towards the incumbency. The fact that MEC has to choose an official broadcaster is a serious indictment on MBC, which by law is meant to operate as a public broadcaster and without any political bias, yet over the years MBC has made itself a partisan broadcaster in favour if the incumbency. It does so with utter impunity and it is getting worse and shameful.
Ansah is right that the broadcasting industry has matured a lot since 2014 if by so she means private broadcasters, not MBC. Private broadcasters have, so far, behaved more responsibly than an institution funded by taxpayers’ money and mandated by the law to be politically neutral and offer fair coverage to all political players. If Malawians are to look back on these elections and say the country’s broadcasting industry helped the electorate make informed choice in the elections we will be talking about private media.
Yet, MEC’s decision not to have official broadcaster is a big mistake and it could prove costly. Radio remains the most important mode of mass communication in this country but it is a big mistake to overlook other forms of media. In absence of official broadcaster MEC has created a communication vacuum at a very sensitive period.
You will remember that one of the key issues that MEC had to deal during the 2014 elections was the announcement of the so-uncalled “unofficial results”—there was even a fascinating debate on the accurate Chichewa translation of “unofficial results”. Yet, MEC had an official broadcaster then—what more when there is none? Is MEC telling us that the absence of the official broadcaster will improve things? Is the decision of not having official broadcaster based on lessons learned in 2014, or failure to learn from those lessons?
Where there is no official channel of communication, people will always create one, and there social media today. It only takes a fairly literate individual with a gadget that is smart enough to do basic tasks on the Internet to create alternative information. If MEC struggled with “unofficial results” on radios in 2014, this time they will also as they will have likes of WhatsApp to deal with. WhatsApp was there in 2014 but not WhatsApp groups and not the same number of people on WhatsApp today—the figures have grown tremendously that its reach in urban areas of Malawi it could rival broadcasting.
It is worrying that MEC is only thinking about broadcasting. Any public organisation today should consider social media in its communication strategy. The four days of presidential nomination papers submission offered a good glimpse of what to expect during the electoral results period. This time stakes will higher and there will be no pantomime villains to lighten up the tense mood, as it was the case during those four days Comesa Hall. n
*Jimmy Kainja is a lecturer, teaching media and communications at University of Malawi, Chancellor College. He is also a blogger focusing on political, cultural and social justice issues.