A complex debate on media freedom is underway in Malawi, with opinions strongly divided. It comes after authorities revoked the licenses of several independent broadcasters over unpaid fees.
In August, the Malawi Communications Regulatory Authority (MACRA) revoked the licenses of a number of private radio and television stations over what it said was the non-payment of license fees.
Ufulu FM, Ufulu Television, Galaxy FM, Joy Radio, Sapitwa FM, Capital Radio, Angaliba Radio, Angaliba Television, and Rainbow Television are now off the air. The closure of further private broadcasters is expected.
Some media experts are applauding the enforcement of a law that has long not been applied. Others are concerned that the government is trying to silence its critics.
In a DW interview, MACRA Communications Manager Zamdziko Mankhambo defended the move, saying the regulatory body was acting within the law.
"This is a regulated industry and should you not adhere to any license condition, there are penalties. You can have your license revoked," he said.
The broadcasters that were stripped of their licenses had been given until August 22 to settle their outstanding fees, but payment was not made, Mankhambo told DW.
The regulatory body has indicated that it plans to revoke at least 23 broadcasting licenses by the end of the year and recover in excess of $100,000 (€10,163) in unpaid fees.
Malawi has a total 95 broadcast licensees.
An ill-timed move
The local chapter of the Media Institute of Southern Africa (MISA) has criticized the move by MACRA as ill-timed.
"The government itself has acknowledged that the economy is in tatters, so to enforce license revocation at a time that the economy is not doing well (...) is not helpful," MISA-Malawi chair Tereza Ndanga told DW.
The MISA Malawi Chapter does not encourage non-compliance when it comes to license fees, Ndanga said.
Media Council of Malawi (MCM) chair Wisdom Chingwede told DW he is worried about the regulator's clampdown.
"There ought to be an amicable solution to the problem that we have at hand," Chingwede told DW. "It was MACRA's fault to have delayed this long with licenses that are unpaid."
The institution has also noted the progress the country had made in ensuring access to information and media freedom.
Media job cuts
Dr. Sydney Kankuzi, a media and communications expert at the University of Malawi, told DW he supports the government's overall effort to regulate the broadcasting sector.
"You have a Communications Act that empowers a parastatal to regulate and enforce the regulation. They are doing [that] and then one blames them for that and accuses them of clamping down on media freedom?" Kankuzi said.
"Maybe there is just a misunderstanding of what is the exact law of that regulator."
The closure of radio and television stations is likely to mean more job cuts. Some 250 media workers are already unemployed in Malawi.
Robert Edward, a television personality, has not had work since MACRA stripped Rainbow Television and other broadcaster of its licenses. He told DW,
"I've been highly affected with the revocation of the license. I was making ends meet until all of a sudden..."
This article was expanded on September 23 to clarify a quote by Tereza Ndanga.
Isaac Kaledzi contributed to this article.
Edited by: Benita van Eyssen