In Malawi, private radio stations censored over political coverage

New York, April 13, 2007—Live radio broadcasts of opposition rallies in the lead-up to presidential polls in 2009 led state regulators in the commercial city of Blantyre this week to bar all private radio stations in Malawi from airing live broadcasts without permission, according to local journalists and media reports. Officials accused unnamed stations of airing “hate messages” but offered no evidence.

All private radio and television broadcasting stations must seek advance permission from the Malawi Communications Regulatory Authority (MACRA) before conducting live broadcasts, according to a statement released by the agency on Tuesday. The directive threatened violators with unspecified punishment. “Of late, MACRA has noted with great concern that hate messages are being broadcast by various broadcasting stations,” the statement said.

CPJ has not found any evidence to support the government’s allegations. MACRA spokeswoman Clara Mulonya would not identify any offensive messages, saying the government did not want to repeat them.

The government’s action effectively targeted three leading private stations, Capital Radio, Joy Radio, and Zodiac Broadcasting Station; they were the only stations to air live coverage of presidential campaign rallies for Bakili Muluzi, local journalists told CPJ. Muluzi, the country’s former president and the current owner of Joy Radio, is challenging his former protégé, the incumbent Bingu Wa Mutharika, in a heated campaign. The stations have denied all government allegations, they told CPJ.

“This ruling amounts to censorship and will distort coverage of the presidential election campaign,” said CPJ Executive Director Joel Simon. “The authorities have produced no evidence to support their disturbing allegations that radio stations are broadcasting hate messages. MACRA must rescind this decision immediately.”

The National Media Institute of Southern Africa, a local media rights group, expects to challenge the ruling in court, Director Innocent Chitosi told CPJ. MACRA, whose members are presidential appointees, already faces a pending legal challenge from Joy Radio, which alleges that some agency members lack the qualifications required by Malawi’s 1998 Communications Act, according to local media reports.

It is not the first time MACRA has threatened private radio stations over critical news coverage. In 2003, it announced that community radio stations were not allowed to broadcast news, a move linked to critical live call-in programs, according to CPJ research. MACRA also threatened private MIJ FM and Capital Radio over political coverage.