A Critical, Independent and Investigative Press in Africa

A Critical, Independent and Investigative Press
The Media in Malawi and Southern Africa
Boston University, April 3, 2007


The use of media or its existence in Africa, started in earnest in the late 1800, after missionaries from Portugal, Britain, Italy and Belgium had set up schools and educated a umber of Africans in basic reading and writing.
Though there was some trading, like Diamond and Gold in Rhodesia, South Africa and other parts, reading and writing in Sub-Saharan Africa was mainly used for preaching and distributing the word of God.
Later between 1880-1899, Africa was partitioned in what became to be known as “the scramble of Africa.” The five major colonial powers that would influence both history and the future of the media in the next century were United Kingdom, Germany, Portugal, Belgium, France and Italy.
The split of the countries in sub-Saharan Africa ended up dividing much of the region in the following order:

United Kingdom France

Uganda Algeria
Kenya Congo Brazzaville
Malawi Rwanda
Zambia Burundi
Zimbawe Ivory Coast
Botswana Niger
Lesotho Chad
Swaziland Gabon
Nigeria Senegal
Ghana Cameroon
South Africa (Though this ended earlier)

Belgium Portugal
Congo DR Guinea Bissau
Central African Republic Angola
Guinea Mozambique

Italy Germany

Ethiopia Tanzania
Somalia Namibia

Note: Germany and Italy lost their colonies to the allies after the World War 1.

From this division, a pattern has emerged that has a direct result on what News, Issues and achievements of the individual countries are like today.

A quick look of the trends in the former colonies will tell you:

United Kingdom

Most British colonies have remained politically stable with the exception of Uganda (In the mid 80’s) and now Zimbabwe (Though Mugabe would want the world to believe otherwise), but the reasons being beyond the colonial influence as White farmers were bonafide Zimbabweans.
Most British systems were highly centralized and classified that services for the white people and black were far apart, which led to high literacy levels in urban areas and social services such as health facilities. The majority of the rural poor were served with low quality services. The Church and other religious institutions are the ones that invested heavily in rural areas.
Britain left the running of most African Governments to themselves and rarely interferes in internal affairs of the states. It has also emerged as one of the leading financial and moral supporter of African cases, championing the African Commission in 2005 and debt relief campaign.
The current Chancellor of the Exchequer Gordon Brown, who might succeed Tony Blair as Prime Minister this year, has put Africa as his main priority.


All countries under the French degenerated into Civil strife
There are indications that successive French Governments have directly taken sides in former colonies.
Rwandan genocide perpetrators were trained by the French army
The French never left a capable administrative system
Most of its former colonies remain within the poorest of the poor bracket


Just like France, all their former colonies have never enjoyed peace
Though their role was fairly nuetral in the actual conflict as evidenced by their willingness to provide sanctuary to those running from the wars from either sides of the conflict.
Angolan and Mozambican Civil wars, were as the result of lack of prior knowledge on part of Portugal on the tribal divisions that existed in each society.

The colonization and individual colonizers influence on its former colony, continues to have impact on both the media and general populace in the Southern African region.

Media in Southern Africa today

“A critical, independent and investigative press is the lifeblood of any democracy, It was the press who never forgot us,” Nelson Mandela spoken just after his February 1990 release from 27 years imprisonment.

This is a value that is still lacking in the media in Africa today: a critical, independent and investigative press.

Southern Africa Development Community is comprised of 14 States, Angola, Botswana, Congo DR, Lesotho, Malawi, Mauritius, Mozambique, Namibia, Tanzania, Swaziland, South Africa, Seychelles, Zambia and Zimbabwe.

All of these, by 2006 had democratic systems of Government, which is based on; Elections, multi-party parliament and a system that allows citizens asking their Government to be accountable.

However, all of them, including South Africa failed to guarantee a free press and though independent media exists in most of the countries, the critical element was often biased opinion.

The International Media has not been left out in this triangle. It might be independent and free media, but it has not been critical of the issues, more often than not, creating perfect sense of excuse for the issues that have a bearing on large part of the community.

Example: Most Foreign media would report on the problems of corruption and failure of projects in Africa, but rarely does one take to task the project designer on how they designed a flawed project in the first place. Being poor, Africans have largely been stereotyped as failures, while those that are responsible for the project design and implementation (which includes monitoring) are rarely taken task.

From 1970 to 1994, Malawi implemented five fiscal adjustments programs and was rated a star performer by the World Bank and IMF in terms of affecting adjustments. Malaysia and Taiwan which had similar or lower per capita income compared to Malawi in 1964, were never subjected to the adjustments. In 1991, World Bank and IMF criticized Malawi’s poor human rights record and other political ills as being the sources of the poverty levels as compared to their individual policies that they had advocated for Malawi. (See attached argument by Thandeka Mkandawire). Contrast the same political environment in Taiwan and Malaysia where Governments never change for as long as 20 years.
Was sit political environment or the policies prescribed. Research on what became famously known as “The Washington Consensus” would give one an indication of how this area of development can be reported critically by both local and foreign media.

Issues affecting the media

The Media Institute of Southern Africa, a leading media group in the SADC states notes in its 2004/2005 State of the Media report; “Most countries have not embraced the liberalization of the media wholeheartedly. While some governments are keen to grant licences to print media organizations, the airwaves still remain closed to a larger extent”

The report adds, “Due to unstable economic trends in most SADC countries, many print media organizations have collapsed while others have emerged.”

The issues that affect the media can be categorized in the following manner:


The atmosphere in most SADC countries does not favour the existence of an independent media. Governments in most countries are still actively controlling output from key media organizations.

Most SADC countries lack proper framework that will guarantee an independent and free press.

Constitutions of countries such as Malawi, Mozambique, Namibia, South Africa and Zambia, they have free press guaranteed in their national constitutions.

Mozambique has a unique statute in its constitution that protects Journalists from disclosing their sources.

However, the challenge has remained in liberalization of the State (Public) Broadcasting which is the most influential media and source of information of the majority people in the region, who cannot read or write.

From Tanzania to South Africa, all countries own and control public broadcasters, which in many cases compared to private media have better capacities.

Namibia and South Africa broadcasting corporations have a higher level objectivity in covering news, though cases of bias and “safe mode selection” applies in terms of news sources deemed critical to Government. SABC has lost a number of influential reporters and presenters lately as most of them claim the Station had developed a list of sources not to be featured on the station.

Malawi, Zambia and Tanzania, the influence of the ruling parties on National Television and Radio is overwhelming, that though regulation and independence is guaranteed by the constitution or other related policy; they rarely have made an impact in developing a free, critical and independent press.

The 1970 National Security Act and Official Secrets act in Tanzania and the protected names act, sedition and others in Malawi hinder development of a critical press as Journalists can be fined heavily or imprisoned for reporting on public officials.

Example: A major newspaper in Malawi in 2005 reported that President Bingu wa Mutharika had invited religious leaders to his 300-bedroom mansion to pray for it as it was allegedly infested with Ghosts. The Presidential advisor on Religious Affairs confirmed the prayers. The BBC and New York Times picked up the story and Government arrested The Nation reporter and BBC correspondent for defaming and ridiculing the President. Though the matter was dropped, but it has raised fears among many Journalists on what the State could do if one pursued stories linked to the President. No major Newspaper has ever published personal stories of the President since the incident.

Angola and Zimbabwe have the most restrictive laws pertaining to running of private radio, television and newspapers. However, Angola is emerging from a long conflict and reforms are currently underway to ensure a working democratic system which hopefully will give rise to free, critical and independent press.

Zimbabwe’s ruling party the ZANU-PF and its Leader President Robert Mugabe disdain the concept of free press. For Foreign Journalists, Zimbabwe is a closed arena that all major international networks have been expelled as late as mid-March 2007; officials from the ruling party were castigating the BBC and the CNN “for acting as terrorists against Zimbabwe and Mugabe.”

The Committee to Protect Journalists writes in its Attacks on the Press 2005 report, “Government control of the media is near complete. Zimbabwe today has no independent daily newspapers, no private radio or television news coverage, and only a handful of independent weeklies.” (page 41)

In using regulation, the Zimbabwe Government has a contingent of laws that include Law and Order Maintenance Act (LOMA), the Official Secrets act, the Magistrates act and the Censorship and Entertainment Control Act.

A new law, the Public Orders and Security Bill (POSB) replacing LOMA was passed in 2005. This new law is even stiffer in punishing Journalists and media houses. Government passed the Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Bill in 2002. Under this Law Journalists will be licensed and have their licenses revoked if they are seen to write falsehoods or defamatory articles. Journalists can be imprisoned or fined heavy fines.
Since its introduction AIPPA has been used to harass dozens of Journalists and to shutter newspapers, including the Daily News, which was Zimbabwe’s only independent daily. Another Law (codification and reform) Act which came into effect in 2005 has heavy fines and prison sentence of up to 20 years (rapists or first offender in criminal charges get much less) for publishing or communicating false information deemed prejudicial to the State.
ZANU-PF list of traitors published in February 2005 has three of its top exiled Journalists among them and the official media The Herald in its March editorial described the media as, “irrelevant and ineffectual” in Africa. In July the same year it went on to christen the media, “as one of Zimbabwe’s biggest problems is media terrorism.”

Another point worth noting is that where regulatory bodies exist, they are mainly appointed by Governments and they normally would charge exorbitant fees that very few private or independent media can manage.


Ownership of the media, has been a source of concern to advocates of a free, independent and critical press. Business, Politics or social affiliation of media owners have failed Newspapers, Radios or Television to achieve objective and fair coverage of issues.

All major Television and Radio networks in the SADC region were by July 2006 owned by Governments, with most of them under the influence of the Minister of Information or a Government appointed body.

Chief Executives of all stations are either appointed by or in consultation with the Minister of Information. Parliaments deemed people’s representatives in a democracy are rarely consulted on such significant public appointment. More often than not, Parliaments are dominated by ruling parties that it would even serve no purpose to consult them while their Party president or leader has already made his choice.

However, though Radio and Television forms the largest source of information for the majority of the people, policy influence and meaningful debate or review of issues have come from Newspapers or print media in general.

Since Radios and Televisions are owned by Governments, there has been very little critical or investigative reporting or coverage as compared to Newspapers who are normally mainly are independent and have shown at times to work for public good than serving Government interests.

Between 1990 and 2004, All SADC countries except for Angola had undergone Leadership change through the ballot and only DR Congo through a war. The run up to elections gave birth to independent Newspapers. Most countries had been under dictatorship or influence of one party for long and multiparty democracy also saw Newspapers aligning themselves to causes. Most independent papers in Malawi came to support the introduction of democracy so, too in Zambia, Tanzania, Namibia, and Mozambique.
However, most of the papers were owned by parties or business people with links to individual political parties.
After elections, very few papers survived the market pressures and those that were linked to politicians found it had to compete in a normal market.
Malawi is a classic example where all its two dailies, The Nation and the Daily Times despite claims of independence are owned by the family of the Founding President and a current President of an opposition party. The owners or parties of the directors are rarely critiqued by the papers.


Local media in the region rarely have adequate resources in economies that are shaky themselves. Only Botswana (State media alone) and South Africa are in higher income bracket, the rest of the countries share the poorest of the poor category in terms of income or per capita.
Inadequate resources, have limited coverage of news to urban areas. This has impacted negatively on readership for news papers in rural areas, where apart from illiteracy, there seem to be a negative attitude towards newspapers than radio based on focus of news.
Capacity constraints have also led to media houses opting for cheap labour by offering lower remuneration for Journalists.


Who eats ethics?

Journalists in the Southern Africa region are poorly remunerated as elsewhere in the World. In Malawi the lowest paid Journalist by 2006 in Malawi carted home USD56.00 after tax, while the middle rate was USD250 and the highest paid group ranged between USD1,000 to 2500.

How does this relate to ethics?

The major challenge facing Malawi media today is the lack of editor and reporters following ethics. Most reporters being in a small media industry have developed close relationships with sources that objective and balanced coverage is rarely a matter of concern.

Most tabloids appear within the elections period and disappear thereafter, many of those that disappear are the ones run by professional journalists without any financial backing from politicians.

Propaganda sheets aligned to those in Government have at times enjoyed revenue from Government advertising while independent and investigative papers with no political affiliation are guaranteed a short life span.

This has, in a poor economy eroded any ethical values among those who seek a living out of Journalism. Very few have remained independent and ethical in their coverage of news.

The relation between a source and a reporter has become one of the most stringent debate topic’s especially between editors and reporters. In many cases editors want to know sources, while reporters might be serving and reporting the sources interests.

One of the most thoughtful summaries in a source and reporters relationships comes from writer Janet Malcolm, in a two-part New Yorker series and a subsequent book titled The Journalist and the Murderer, who states;

“Every Journalist who is not too stupid or too full himself to notice what is going on knows that what he does is morally indefensible. He is a kind of confidence man, preying on people’s vanity, ignorance, or loneliness, gaining their trust and betraying them without remorse……. On reading the article or book in question, (the source) has to face the fact that the journalist- who seemed so friendly and sympathetic, so keen to understand him fully, so remarkably attuned to his vision of things- never had the slightest intention of collaborating with him on his story but always intended to write a story of his own. The disparity between what seems to be the intention of an interview as it is taking place and what it actually turns out to have been in aid of always comes to shock to the subject (Janet Malcom, The Journalist and the Murderer, New York: Vintage Books, 1990, pp. 3-4)

Unfortunately, most African sources will ever be shocked as they dictate the pace and the outcome of story. Both politically or through economic influence.

Countries like South Africa, Botswana and Namibia whose economies are advanced, largely unethical practice is dominant in State media and smaller partisan tabloids while the larger free media has proven to uphold the ethics in their coverage.

The lack of media self regulatory bodies in many countries have also led to proliferation of every jack who thinks he can write and ends up calling themselves Journalists. They have no ethical or moral attachment to the profession that in many cases they dismiss any talk of ethics and self-regulatory mechanism as a form of censorship.


Journalism training in Southern Africa only came into being in the late 1990” which coincided with introduction of democracy in most states. However most of the time the training is short and inadequate and covers general skills.
Due to economic reasons very few media houses run their own training departments and the majority depends on scholarships and grants to build capacity of their own personnel. This has limited a number of qualified Journalists getting into field.
Most media houses will not support long-term training and this has given the industry half baked personnel who do more harm than good to the profession.


Politics has remained a dominant challenge to developing a critical, investigative and independent press in the region. With control of most Televisions and Radio in hands of Government, very few outside the rings are equally not under the armpits of some political influence.
While some political originates from realities such as anti-apartheid campaign in South Africa where black Journalists were championing a cause that had their emotional attachment or Zimbabwean Journalists that have been exiled by Mugabe; Most Journalists have ended up taking political positions in the coverage after such events and that influence affects both the quality of investigations, critical analysis of issues and the objective and independent reporting.
There should be a way to ensure that people that became advocates of a particular cause be reduced to columnists or some writers form without influencing the media house to bend towards the particular side that one belongs to.
For State media, the challenge is enormous and further research is required to how to develop a critical, objective and investigative public media.

Social-cultural influences

One of the most over looked factor in Journalism is the individual socio-economic and cultural influence on Journalists and how they discharged their duties.
Africa is a place where religion, culture and society through its communal life has a large bearing on how people conduct in any profession.
Doctors from the area, will be expected to provide free services to “one of their own” or on credit which will never be paid. Policeman from ones “home village” cannot arrest your own extended family members too.
The same in Journalism, stories that might have an impact on ones society are rarely investigated or reported by Journalists.
Religious institutions rarely receive any scrutiny due to their huge influence in society, that abuse of resources or any lewd behaviors will rarely be published as it might “offend the clergy.”
The same with custodians of ones culture such as Chiefs and Traditional Authorities. In Swaziland and Lesotho it is a criminal offence to criticize the King. In KwaZulu Natal in South Africa, one cannot discuss issues of wealth or conduct of the King and remain safe in the area.
However these influences have negated on developing a critical and independent media, as only politicians not other key players in society receive scrutiny, which always make the politician suspicious on the motives of Journalists.
Some clever politicians sensing this influence now use Religious and Traditional leaders as their mouth piece as they will not receive the same level of scrutiny as they would.

Covering News events

For both Local and International Journalists, there are basic categories of what would be interesting as News in Africa. The categories though not limited but would give one an interesting picture of how much as been covered and how much can be covered.

The other most important factor to consider is that most authorities are not forth coming with information, especially that is critical or those that perceive the press to be enemies. Establishing sources on ground would be more important and having someone familiar to take one around would be helpful to someone wanting to write a very objective and balanced piece.

Most foreign reports fail to tackle basic issues and are either public relations material or biased views of selected group of people, which can be used by propaganda machinery to discredit the stories, especially among the locals.

Most countries require that you register with the Ministry of Information for one to conduct any Journalistic work in countries. Fees in the region range from 30 to 50 dollars.


Poverty and poor living conditions of the majority of African people has been covered extensively by local and Foreign correspondents; however some critical questions have not be asked by most Journalists.
Issues that one cover in poverty include:

How many development projects have been funded and what has been their impact
What are the poor people’s priorities and how are they incorporated in development agenda’s that Government’s or multi lateral agencies use to design and implement programmes.
To what extent do wee need poverty that our countries or systems should survive.

These could lead to better analytical reports that would balance the views of the poor and the extent of how development aid has failed to tackle poverty.
World Bank indicates that over 340 billion dollars have been invested in Africa in the past 40 years, and none of African countries has managed to reduce poverty to twenty percent.


Health as news has not been given prominence as over politics or conflicts that the continent experience. HIV/Aids has received a good measure of coverage, but other health challenges such as maternal and child mortality, malaria and TB5 are rarely news makers.
The burden of diseases on already poor African economies can make a great reading, if well investigated including the cost to Government, families and general wellbeing of the country.

This could be done in the following manner:

How many people get malaria a month
How many are working class, have families and support other dependents
How many productive hours do they log in each month or are expected
What is the cost of preventing or treating malaria
What about other burdens like on the health system and other areas that will support the man.
Multiply this with the number or patients, the costs will be higher sometimes that the countries GDP.
Another interesting issue in Health assistance is that Aids is robbing all professional and skilled health workers as it is a well funded programme, which has left most health programmes in shambles as many health workers have left the system to work for Aids.

Questions could range how to integrate primary health care and other illnesses with the Aids resources or do a critical analysis of what Aids money can do a health system, if not properly analyzed.

Kondwani Munthali
Global Health Fellow, Harvard University
2007 Nieman Fellow

This is part of the series that I will be publishing. Beyond What we see. It was first Presented at Boston University Foreign Reporting Class on April 3, 2007.


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