Long before the Malawi media took shape in earnest, three professors of communication, Fred S. Siebert, Theodore Peterson and Wilbur Schramm came up with the book Four Theories of the Press in 1956 which still made sense even during the colonial authority, when Malawi published her first newspaper.
The colonial period of 1891 to 1963, single party – 1964 to 1992 and the democratic pluralism, which started in 1993 best categorised Malawi’s three phases of political history which cannot be divorced from its media archetype.
The broadcasting history for Malawi starts from the Federal Broadcasting Corporation to Radio Malawi in 1963 and Malawi Broadcasting Corporation (MBC) on the attainment of Independence. MBC remained a sole broadcaster in the country until 1998 when a first ‘private’ commercial radio was launched.
The same tale would also be told of the television services when the Malawi Television (TVM) was the only one broadcasting to Malawians from Malawi from 1998 until ‘religious’ television stations were given licences in the early 2000.
Going by what each theory stands for when we consider the Four Theories of the Press, there is a sneaking temptation to try to identify Malawi with each, considering the five regimes that have come and went, starting with the British Colonial Authority, the Malawi Congress Party (MCP) single party rule of President Hastings Kamuzu Banda and the three multiparty regimes of Bakili Muluzi’s United Democratic Front (UDF), Bingu wa Mutharika’s Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) and the current Joyce Banda’s Peoples’ Party(PP).
In this write-up, I will tackle the question “Have the Four Theories of the Press outlived their usefulness in explaining government-media relationship in Malawi?”
By picking out each theory (Authoritarian, Libertarian, Soviet/Communist, and Social Responsibility) and try to fit it in the Malawi frame, and establish its relevance or lack of it, I will be able to tell the history of Malawi media and the intricacies that have made it grow skins in the face of political pressure over the years.
The authoritarian theory
Praveen Karthik says under the authoritarian theory, the state, as the highest expression of institutionalized structure, supersedes the individual runs the state on behalf of the not so competent and interested citizenry that is considered unable to make critical political decisions.
In Malawi, under the authoritarian theory the President or a ruling political party are the ones in a leadership role.
Before the Colonial government realised that the publications of missionaries – earliest published in 1881 (Chitsulo & Mang’anda 2011) – were not the right channel to communicate through, it was these religious groupings which were taking the role of the elite group under the authoritarian theory to exercise social control through the religious teachings.
The colonial government, however, took over this role in 1894 with their official mouth piece The British Central African Gazette (Chitsulo & Mang’anda 2011) to articulate government policies and highlight its activities, especially in the critical areas of agriculture, legislation, health, weather and human resources.
This was befitting the chief purpose of the authoritarian theory which is to support and advance the policies of the government in power and to service the state (Severin & Tankard 2010).
However when in 1895 two Zomba based white settlers, R.S. Hynde and R.R. Stark started producing The Central African Planter it still did not take away the fact that the authoritarian theory was in play as ownership is in the hands of the public through their government and the private sector.
As an instrument of effecting government policy, not necessarily government owned though, The Central African Planter announced in its first publication that it was an organ devoted to the planting interests of the community, which it claimed the British Central Africa depended on.
As power exchanged hands, with the exiting of the colonial government and the entering into mantle of leadership by MCP, it was an indication that the party wanted to advance its position.
In 1959 MCP established Malawi News which came into the scene as a political and Independence fighting tool.
This was proven to be true, when after attaining self-rule in 1963, Independence in 1964 and a republican status in 1966 the publication continued with propaganda for MCP and development initiatives for the new government. (Chitsulo & Mang’anda 2011).
Chitsulo and Mang’anda rightly strengthen this position when they put it this way:
“It was joined by in the MCP stable by a sister publication, The Times, later renamed today’s The Daily Times which Dr. [Hastings Kamuzu] Banda the self styled President for life had acquired from Blantyre Printing and Publishing Company.”
As a description of the post-colonial media system Professor Fackson Banda writing about Malawi and Zambia once said upon the liberation of both countries from British colonialism, the structure of media ownership changed. Hitherto privately owned media became “nationalised”, which meant that they became the property of the state.
Banda says to extend this point: it meant that the ruling parties became key players in the ownership of the media. This is particularly evident in the Malawian case.
Indeed, this integration of the media into the structure of the then-ruling MCP degenerated into a media legacy that Prof. Banda says has come to be described as follows:
- Complete control of the media by the political elite (recruitment, editorial content, etc.).
- Stifled independent media.
- Monopolisation and control of the Blantyre Print & Publishing Company and the Malawi Broadcasting Corporation by the Government.
- Insufficient funding to stimulate establishment of more printing and publishing houses and electronic media.
It is within this period that MBC was also launched to have one voice as Dr. Banda argued that pluralistic media …would impede progress and invite rancour and disunity. (Manjawira & Mitunda 2011)
These media outlets were then turned into instruments that took the positions of educators and propagandists that propagated the one party policies of the MCP government.
Those that practiced journalism at the time were also considered privileged and therefore owed an obligation to the leadership.
This was also the entry point when multiparty system of government led by UDF and President Bakili Muluzi took over power.
Muluzi and UDF made journalists their puppets where the media that published and broadcast anti-government news would not be supported financially or otherwise, thereby forcing the media to tow a party line and fell into the tentacles of the authoritarian theory.
The same was perpetuated by the DPP government of Bingu wa Mutharika and lately President Joyce Banda through the arrests of media practitioners and her refusal to append her signature to the Table Mountain Declaration.
PP’s action is in a way a means to force the mass media to operate in a certain set up that befits a similar role as it posits an authority that is appropriately taking after authoritarian portrayal, where the media can only operate under a kind of freedom as the national leadership, at any particular time, is willing to permit.
The libertarian theory
Considering that England adopted the libertarian theory in the 1688 (Severin & Tankard 2010) and that it can be traced back to England and the American colonies of the seventeenth century, one would suggest that Malawi being under the British Colonial powers would enjoy the benefits of this theory more than it did with the authoritarian theory.
It only had to wait until the multiparty system of government in Malawi in 1994, that the country enjoyed more benefits of the libertarian theory whose chief purpose (Severin & Tankard 2010) is to inform, entertain, and sell, although chiefly is to help discover truth and to check on government although this could not be earned with 100 percent rake as the political leadership indirectly still gave room to the authoritarian theory.
During Bakili Muluzi regime, Blantyre Newspapers Limited (BNL) was not being patronised by government for its critical stand against his rule.
Muluzi also warned he would resort to using sedition laws against the media that insulted him (Ifex 17 June 1996) saying under the 1930 Penal Code for Sedition a person could be charged with sedition for inciting dissent against the president.
Previously, as was reported by the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) on 21 May, President Muluzi had also warned journalists that he would not tolerate what he called “inaccurate reporting” which harmed the country’s image. Muluzi was apparently angered by a newspaper report which alleged that a local company had given him a free vehicle in order to give that company favourable treatment.
According to an IFEX alert of May 21, 1996 although Muluzi said that press freedom was guaranteed in Malawi, he reportedly stressed that “If I seek legal advice, journalists should not squeal and try to hoodwink the international community that the president of Malawi and members of his government are depriving journalists of their freedom”.
The successor to Muluzi, late President Bingu wa Mutharika, had his own share of the tendency to make authoritarian and libertarian theories co-exists, especially when he was serving his second and last term (Gondwe 2011).
He became notorious in the world media sphere when he championed the amendment of Section 46 of the Penal Code, which empowers information minister to ban any publication s/he would be injurious for public consumption.
In March 2009, Mutharika’s government released a circular to ministries and government departments ordering them to stop subscribing to and advertising in all three publications of the privately owned Nation Publications Limited.
What followed was that on 26 August 2010, Mutharika warned, “I will close down newspapers that lie and tarnish my government’s image”. Mutharika was angered by the weekly Malawi News which had quoted a food security forecast by the Southern African Development Community that said more than a million Malawians faced starvation because of poor rains in several districts.
This was one of Mutharika’s first public attacks on privately owned newspapers. “If I close you down, you’ll rush to donors to say Bingu is suppressing the press,” he said. “I will close down any newspaper that publishes lies. You can go to the donors and I’ll ask them whether in their countries they tolerate lies,” he continued.
True to his words, on 29 October 2010, the government banned The Weekend Times, with immediate effect. The weekly evening tabloid is published by the 100-year-old newspaper group BNL, and famous for exposing fraud and sex scandals involving public figures.
The banning order came from the National Archives, and quoted the 1958 Printed Publications Act, which demands that all newspapers be registered and deposit a copy of each of their publications with the National Archives.
BNL, however, applied for and received a stay order from the courts that restrained the government from implementing its decision and indication that, here the private sector was following the libertarian press theory which considers man as a rational animal with inherent natural rights; one of which is the right to pursue truth, and in the process restraining potential interferes from the authority like Mutharika, in this instance.
Barely five months after Joyce Banda took over presidency Media Institute of Southern Africa (Misa) put out an alert concerning proposed law that would impose stricter regulations on internet communications and force editors of online publications to register their personal details with the state.
The attitude of President Banda’s government was manifested in October last year, (Somerville, 2012) when Justice Mponda, a journalist for the news website Malawi Voice, was arrested on charges of insulting the president, criminal libel and publishing false information.
Although the chief purpose of libertarian theory remain that that a free press working in a laissez faire and unfettered situation will naturally result in a pluralism of information and viewpoints necessary in a democratic society, it remains to be seen if the Malawi media can work without being systematically clamped down.
The Soviet/communist theory
Malawi was siding the West during the cold war and at no time did it ever come under the spotlight of the communist theory of the press, whose chief purpose was to contribute to the success and continuance of the soviet socialist system.
The Mass media, under this theory, is state-owned and closely controlled media existing solely as arm of the state.
Of Malawi’s five regimes none has ever attempted to make the media part of the state apparatus. Although others would try to argue otherwise, this theory has never existed in Malawi and still holds no future potential to appear again especially considering that even in countries where it is still being practiced like in China there have been remarkable changes.
But even thought the majority of the media in China today are still owned by the state, there are some joint ventures already with foreign investment, including a joint-venture Internet service in technology information between the People’s Daily and the News Corp owned by Australian media tycoon, Rupert Murdoch (Reuters, 1998).
The social responsibility theory
According to this theory, its main purpose is to inform, entertain, and sell. Chiefly it is to raise conflict to the plane of discussion (Severin & Tankard).
This is a theory that can also be identified with the current Malawi media sphere.
With what is now referred to as ‘Citizen Journalism’ where newspapers like The Weekend Nation now carries special pages, as well as the new social forums on the internet like Facebook, Twitter as well as interactive websites for online media publications, it is clear that this theory has found enough room to flourish.
In trying to answer the questions who has the right to use the media under this theory and how are media controlled, (Severin & Tankard) answered that everyone has something to say, community opinion, consumer action, and professional ethics.
Although this social responsibility theory is a product of mid-twentieth century America, its proponents say it has its roots in libertarian theory. As rightly captured by Karthik, this theory goes beyond the libertarian theory, in that it places more emphasis on the press’s responsibility to society than on the press’s freedom.
As rightly captured by (African Media Barometer 2012), there is a considerable amount of legislation, which can be used to restrict freedom of expression in Malawi which can work against the social responsibility theory and these include sections of:
- The Penal Code of 1930, which criminalises libel, sedition and defamation; and
- The Protected Flag, Emblems and Names Act of 1967, which prohibits the cartooning of the president;
- The Police Act of 1946;
- The Official Secrets Act of 1913 and
- The Censorship and Control of Entertainments Act of 1968 (P-16)
The Four theories of the Press, have therefore not outlived their usefulness in explaining government-media relationship in Malawi, especially considering that even with the social responsibility as being the main stay for the country’s modus operandi of the media, there are still laws regulating the media which are still under the leash of government.
The theories are still useful considering the changing dynamics of the media with the advent of the internet which necessitate what Severin and Tankard said:
“Media must assume obligation of social responsibility; and if they do not, someone must see that they do.”
- Barratt, E & Berger, G (2007). 50 Years of Journalism; African Media since Ghana’s independence. Johannesburg, South Africa. The African Editors’ Forum, Highway Africa and Media Foundation for West Africa
- Gondwe, G (2011). Malawi repressive media laws making a comeback. Retrieved from:
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- Severin, W.J &Tankard, J.W. (2010). Communication Theories: Origins, Methods, and Uses in the Mass Media. New York, US: Addison Wesley Longman
- Somerville, K (2013). Malawi’s muffled media: Same as it ever was. Retrieved from:
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- VonDoepp, P. (2012). Countries at the Crossroads 2012 – Malawi. Washington, USA. Freedom House. available at: http://www.refworld.org/docid/505c172d2d.html
 Communication Theories, Origins, Methods, And Uses in the Mass Media, Fifth Edition by Werner J. Severin & James W. Tankard, Jr
 50 Years of Journalism; African Media Since Ghana’s independence Edited by Elizabeth Barratt and Guy Berger
 Journalism Practice in Malawi, History, Progress and Prospects by Kondowe et al