Four years after President Bakili Muluzi's jubilant defeat of "President-for-Life" Hastings Kamuzu Banda, Malawi's fledgling democracy has yet to offer any guarantees of press freedom--despite Muluzi's pledge to "make sure that journalists are free to criticize the government."
The official ban on state advertising in opposition newspapers set the stage for a year of confrontation between the state and the privately owned media. Because the government is the largest advertiser, the ban--ordered after the independent Daily Times's and Malawi News's critical coverage of government mismanagement and corruption--is a significant economic setback for the two publications.
Parliament has yet to act on pending legislation that would liberalize ownership of broadcast media and permit political opponents access to the airwaves. Press freedom organizations object to a provision of the bill that would create a communications regulatory body under the authority of the Minister of Information because it would be susceptible to political influences. The legislation would also reserve all AM frequencies for state use for seven years.
The Malawi Broadcasting Corporation Act, which created the state-owned Malawi Broadcasting Corporation (MBC), bars opposition parties from airing dissenting opinions on official channels. Currently, there are four operating FM frequency radio stations: state-run MBC 11, the nominally independent commercial FM 101, a community radio station using
pilot broadcasting, and a religious
station. There are no local independent broadcasters.
Print media reach a much smaller audience than the state-controlled broadcast media, and journalists at privately owned publications face constant harassment from the state. On January 15, soldiers raided the offices of the independent Daily Times and demanded copies of the July 5, 1997, edition of the newspaper, which reported that the HIV infection rate among soldiers was higher than in Malawi's general population. Because soldiers have assaulted journalists who criticize the ruling United Democratic Front party, many journalists use pseudonyms as protection from arrest.
The United Nations Development Program and other foreign donors have linked future aid to growth of a free press in the country. A Japanese aid pledge of US$765 million was accompanied by a warning from Japan's ambassador to Malawi that "reports of authorities exercising control over the freedom of the press... is a matter of concern."