Who Rules the Airwaves? Broadcasting in Africa.

Author:Watkins, Eric

The importance of the broadcast media throughout the developing world can hardly be underestimated, especially in countries making the transition from one-party rule to multi-party democracy. Indeed, in countries where newspapers hardly circulate outside the capital cities and where literacy levels are too low to enable the reading of newspapers, the broadcast media become the only means whereby the population can obtain the information it needs to make politically informed decisions. Yet, as this book points out, there are all too few cases where the broadcast media are free enough to perform their public functions.

The primary problem, according to the authors of this book, lies in the fact that ruling regimes find it in their own interests to maintain a tight grip on the broadcast media in order to perpetuate their rule. Some countries have tipped their hats in the direction of commercial broadcasting in addition to the state-controlled media. But even in those cases, the ruling regimes continue their influence either by preventing certain groups from obtaining broadcast licenses, promoting others to get them, or - even more fundamentally - by controlling the correspondents who report to such independent media.

Consider the case of Malawi. "The Malawi Broadcasting Corporation (MBC), like all its regional counterparts, is almost totally dependent on the national press agency, the Malawi News Agency (MANA). As elsewhere in the region MANA also acts as a filter for foreign wire services such as Reuters. Whereas the MBC is (at least nominally) an independent statutory body, MANA is a department of the Ministry of Information. Its correspondents are government information officers attached to each district boma (administrative headquarters). This means that, however autonomous the MBC might become and however independent its editorial line, it still retains this umbilical link with government structures.

The importance of this link became clear during Malawi's 1994 elections when MBC "continued to rely on MANA for its reports of campaign meetings. Out of 170 political meetings reported by MANA in the seven weeks leading up to the elections, no fewer than 130 were organised by the ruling Malawi Congress Party."

While ruling parties can be blamed for exerting such controls, international organisations and aid donor countries may also be at fault. "Donor governments, which have made...

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