In Malawi, government agency shuts fledgling television station

New York, November 2, 2007–State regulators in the commercial city of Blantyre summarily pulled off the air on Tuesday Malawi’s first private television station, citing an alleged regulatory violation, according to news reports and local journalists. The ruling, targeting a fledgling station close to opposition leader Bakili Muluzi in the lead-up to presidential polls in 2009, appeared to violate Malawi’s media laws, according to CPJ research.

Joy Television has remained off the air since receiving a letter from the Malawi Communications Regulatory Authority ordering the station to cease all operations on grounds that its license expired on May 31, 2007, according to news reports. The station must remain closed until it applies for an “appropriate radio and broadcasting license,” several reports cited the letter as saying. The station had been running test transmissions and entertainment programming in recent weeks ahead of a launch, according to Peter Chisale, director of sister station Joy Radio.

Yet Joy TV’s license–granted in 2002, according to Chisale–was not set to expire until 2009 under Malawi’s 1998 Communications Act, which grants licenses for a period of seven years, according to CPJ research.

The ruling also appeared to violate a provision of the Communications Act that grants exclusive authority to issue or revoke licenses to the agency’s board of directors, according to Innocent Chitosi, director of the National Media Institute of Southern Africa, a local press freedom group, and CPJ research. The authority has been without a functioning board of directors since a July ruling by Malawi’s High Court enjoined members from exercising their duties, according to local journalist and news reports. The High Court had cited irregularities in President Bingu Wa Mutharika’s appointments of board members. 

In a telephone interview with CPJ today, authority spokesman, Zadziko Mankhambo, asserted that “not every decision requires the board,” but he could not cite provisions under the Communications Act backing his claim. “With the license expired, do you expect MACRA to just look on?” he added.

“This ruling, which does not appear to have a basis under Malawi’s laws, amounts to censorship and threatens to undermine the democratic credentials of Malawi as the country prepares for elections in 2009,” said CPJ Executive Director Joel Simon.

The Communications Regulatory Authority has come under fire from the local press and the courts this year over its work, and was the subject of several legal challenges, particularly from Joy Radio, over allegations of political interference, according to local journalists. Earlier this year, the High Court struck down an April ruling by the regulator to bar private radios from airing live broadcasts of political rallies without permission as unconstitutional, according to CPJ research.