19 October 1998

Alert

Malawi Report: Communications Reform and Freedom of Expression


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(ARTICLE 19/IFEX) - On 19 October 1998, ARTICLE 19 released the following
report on communications reform and freedom of expression in Malawi:




Malawi Communications: another sorry tale of frustration


Since Malawi's return to multi-party democracy in 1994, there have been
major changes in broadcasting, telecommunications, Internet and e-mail.
However, according to a new report by ARTICLE 19, "Malawi: Communications
Reform and Freedom of Expression", these have been characterised by
profit-making through influence-peddling and monopoly formation, while
blocking various private sector initiatives. The report, which is being
published as a new communications bill due to go before the Malawi
parliament, provides the government with an opportunity to bring positive
regulation and an end to profiteering.


The second multi-party elections are due to be held next year, so the need
for broadcasting reform has become pressing. Overall, there is a desperate
need for better communications in Malawi, in order to accelerate both
economic and democratic development. At present the supply of telephones per
head of population is one of the lowest in Africa. ARTICLE 19 shows that
there is no shortage of private companies attempting to address this and
other communication deficits, yet they are stymied at every turn by state
bodies, in particular the Malawi Posts and Telecommunications Corporation
(MPTC).


Land-based telephones, pagers and cellphones


Land-based telephones are provided by the parastatal monopoly operator, the
MPTC. The cost of international phone calls is high and despite promises to
improve, services have eroded to the point where they frighten off new
investors and demoralise companies operating in Malawi.


Pager services have been subject to technical blockages, while cellphones
remain expensive, have very limited range, and are controlled by Telekom
Networks, which operates as a strictly commercial operation, with no
contractual obligation to service rural residents, or others without access
to the fixed telephone network. This is in spite of the fact that the
company has a monopoly, and is 40 per cent owned by MPTC.


Internet


There is only one Internet service provider in Malawi - MalawiNet. Here,
too, there is a problem of monopoly: the government's Anti-Corruption Bureau
is investigating MalawiNet and an individual associated with it. Potential
competitors, such as CompuServe/AOL have had their services cut off while
endless bureaucratic haggling goes on, leaving MalawiNet as the only
recourse, apart from a few small e-mail services.


Groups complaining about the preferential treatment given to MalawiNet
include the Sustainable Network Development Programme of the United Nations
Development Programme (UNDP), which thought that it had an agreement to
provide a cheap service linked to a national environmental programme, and so
was very surprised to find that the MPTC had chosen to set up MalawiNet on a
commercial basis.


Radio


Radio is still the most important medium in Malawi, with far greater reach
than the written press. Successive government ministers with the Information
portfolio have interfered directly with the Malawi Broadcasting Corporation
(MBC) radio station, blocking attempts to make it independent.


The Malawi Broadcasting Corporation (MBC) dominates radio broadcasting, with
most applications for private radio stations turned down. Currently only two
commercial stations have been given licences: they are owned by the
President's press secretary and the son of a Minister. A third station, for
rural women, supported by donors, has also received a licence recently, and
the African Bible College runs a religious station which MPTC does not allow
to broadcast news.


The need for reform


There is an urgent need for reform of broadcasting in Malawi. The draft
Communications Bill, due to be laid before parliament imminently, goes some
way to addressing this need. Positive aspects include the establishment of
clear criteria and a formal procedure for tendering and issue of licences,
as well as establishing a regulatory body to oversee them.


However, ARTICLE 19 has a number of reservations about the bill, including
the following:


  • It leaves too great a margin of presidential discretion in
    appointments to
    the new regulatory authority and the board of the Malawi Broadcasting
    Corporation. ARTICLE 19 is of the view that the Public Appointments
    Committee of parliament should nominate candidates.
  • The role of the Minister of Information should be reduced to a minimum to
    prevent political interference.
  • There is a lack of adequate safeguards in the bill against conflicts of
    interest for those who are regulating broadcasting or communications while
    maintaining a financial interest.
  • The bill does not adequately provide for a climate of genuine freedom of
    expression. For example, the state will have the only national station, and
    will maintain sole access to AM frequencies for seven years. Companies may
    be refused licences on the basis of "national security".
  • Value added services (Internet, e-mail etc.) are not adequately
    covered in
    the bill or the accompanying policy statement.







  • Source

    ARTICLE 19: Global Campaign for Free Expression
    6-8 Amwell Street
    London
    EC1R 1UQ
    United Kingdom
    info (@) article19.org
    Fax:+44 20 7278 7660
    Malawi
     
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