A seven-person Southern African Editors’ Forum (SAEF) mission comprising editors from Botswana, Lesotho, Mozambique, South Africa, Swaziland and Zambia including the SAEF executive director based in Namibia, travelled to Malawi on 16-23 May 2014 to observe media conduct during that country’s 2014 tripartite elections.
The SAEF mission was fully funded by the Open Society Initiative in Southern Africa (OSISA) who also helped revive the organisation in 2013 following the collapse of many of its forums in the 10 southern African countries that make up SAEF.
SAEF’s major finding in Malawi was that although the media had covered the entire election process fairly well, it had failed to give equitable coverage to all three parts of the elections – presidential, parliamentary and local government. The press gave 40% coverage to the presidential race, 11% to the parliamentary one and 1% to local government elections, according to research done by the Media Monitoring Project of the US funded Institute for War and Peace Reporting (IWPR).
The state broadcaster, the Malawi Broadcasting Corporation (MBC) performed poorly at first in that it gave 90% coverage to the ruling Peoples’ Party and the incumbent President, Dr Joyce Banda and only 10% to opposition parties. Only after complaints were lodged with Government through the Minister of Information did the figure of 90% drop to 70%.
Some editors and journalists were critical of the print media’s operations. They said the papers dealt with the news at face value and did not examine the news critically and in depth. One said that party candidates would not discuss their election manifestos with reporters. They were disappointed in the televised presidential candidates’ debates from which little that was new emerged. Some felt that some papers had devoted too much space to the ruling PP of Dr Banda.
The body running the elections, the Malawi Electoral Commission (MEC) unilaterally imposed bans and withheld important information from the media especially on its preparedness on polling day, May 20, resulting in the chaotic situation that existed in a number of polling stations across the country where ballot papers and other materials did not arrive on time. There were also questions about the verification of the voters’ roll that were not answered properly by the MEC which the media wrote about.
Overall, the SAEF mission found that no deliberate steps were taken by media stakeholders including the Malawi Editors’ Forum (MAEF) to pay special attention to the coverage of these elections, given that it was the first time that the country was going to hold tripartite elections.
It must be noted that this report is a sample of what the team of editors felt was the position of Malawi in terms of media coverage, and the politics of objectivity. The mission’s main objective was not to become a judge but to provide a general picture upon which future actions by the media and stakeholders can be based. The aim was to peer review the coverage of elections by people in the practice and to identify archaic electoral legislation impeding freedom of expression. The findings in this report are in no way specific to Malawian journalists but are shared with other media houses across borders and largely in other African countries.