The ruling DPP government has, through the Malawi Communications Regulatory Authority (Macra), drawn up a raft of regulations to crackdown on the broadcasting industry and media in the country.
In the draft Communications Act (Broadcasting/Content Services) Regulations 2015, bearing the name of Information Minister Kondwani Nankhumwa, government proposes a slew of provisions on how public, private and community broadcasting should operate.
The Media Institute of Southern Africa (Misa) Malawi Chapter has since urged the government to allow for thorough scrutiny of the document before it is taken to the next stage.
On its part, government insists there is nothing for the broadcasting industry to worry about as it would not do anything that would stifle operations of the media in Malawi.
But the proposed regulations may send shivers down the spine of the broadcasting industry in the country.
For instance, government weighs in on undercover journalism by putting it to broadcasters ânot to broadcast any information acquired from a person without the personâs consent.â
The legislation, however, says this can only be done if the information to be acquired âis essential to establish the credibility and authority of a source or where the information is clearly in the public interest.â
The regulations also provide for the formation of a Broadcasting Complaints Committee.
According to the document, the duties of the committee shall include reviewing and investigating allegations levelled against broadcasters.
The committee, say the proposed regulations, shall have the powers to summon any person âwhom it considers necessary for proper consideration of a complaint or allegationâ.
It will also have powers to take any action as it may deem necessary.
In addition, private broadcasting largely survives on programme sponsorships and advertisements.
But the new law reigns in on this by proposing that no broadcaster shall âaccept sponsorship of news, weather, financial or traffic report broadcastsâ.
However, in what could be an own contradiction, the proposed legislation says a licensee shall retain ultimate editorial control of âany sponsored programme and shall ensure that sponsorship of an informative programme does not compromise the accuracy and impartiality of the content programme.â
The act even charges broadcasters with the responsibility of controlling what they advertise.
And in the new law, political parties would have their own bends to negotiate if they are to get coverage by broadcasters.
The act proposes that a licensee shall not broadcast any programme which has been sponsored by a political party âunless [the broadcaster] accords all other political parties who so request similar opportunity.â
It also sets a condition for a broadcaster not to carry political advertisements unless it also affords other political persons a similar opportunity if requested.
On political election broadcasting, the draft legislation proposes that a broadcaster can only carry a political election broadcast during the declared election period.
The Act lists up to 27 offences whose penalties âdepending on the offence ârange between K50, 000 and K5 million in fines; jail sentences of between six months and 10 years and retraction and apology within 48 hours.
On the other hand, the proposed legislation also requires broadcasters to meet high professional and quality standards, respect human rights, dignity and freedoms and contribute to the tolerance of different opinions and beliefs.
It also urges broadcasters against discrimination of people on account of their race, colour, sex, disability and political opinion, among other considerations.
In his comment, Misa Malawi chairperson, Thom Khanje, has called upon the government to ensure that the new regulations undergo rigorous public examination to achieve the acceptance before enforcement starts.
âThis document has a huge bearing on our democracy and government should be as transparent as possible with it. It should ensure that all areas of concern are debated on thoroughly and recommendations adopted.
âThere may be good intentions behind it but all that could be badly spoiled by a few things that could trigger discontent. So we call upon government to open it up for more discussions,â Khanje said.
Contrary to possible industry fears with regard to the Broadcasting Complaints Committee, Khanje said he was of the view that such a body was long overdue in Malawi as it is a feature in other democracies in the region.
âFor instance, South Africa has a vibrant broadcasting complaints committee and we need to have one, as long as it operates independent of any other influence, political or otherwise,â he said.
However, the Act seems to tamper with such independence by proposing that two officials from the Malawi Communications Regulatory Authority (Macra) should make part of the committee.
The committee will also comprise a representative each from Malawi Law Society, Malawi Electoral Commission, Misa and Media Council of Malawi.
However, government says it has good intentions in coming with the regulations.
Director of Information in the Ministry of Information, Bright Molande, said government will subject the document to sufficient consultation for broadcasters and other stakeholders to make their contributions.
âWe have no intention whatsoever to stifle media operations in Malawi because we believe their freedom is critical for our democracy. We will make sure that broadcasters make their inputs so that this document suits their taste,â he said yesterday.
On advertising, Molande said:
âThere is no need for broadcasters to fear. Government too needs advertisers and there is no intention to cripple the industry by checking their lifeline.
âThat said, everyone agrees that it is important that broadcasters exercise responsibility on what they advertise so that there is no offence to others. So, what I can tell broadcasters is that the document is draft and it will remain a draft until we exhaust consultations.â
On the provision on broadcasting related to politics and political parties, commentator Rafik Hajat said the intention could be to level the playing field for political parties but he said this needs to be defined further.
âKnowing what we know about ruling political parties in the country and their keenness to abuse power, it would be naĂŻve to think that there would not be restrictions from the government against opposition political parties.
âThere would need to define some of the terms under the provision. For example, what would constitute a political message? I would also recommend a caveat where all political parties are given the same amount of time for coverage. But the question is whether the political party in power would grant that opportunity, especially in the case of the public broadcaster,â Hajat said.
The document was under discussion in Lilongwe where broadcasters were also in attendance.
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