The BBC recently reported that the average Malawian spends more than MK5400 (US$12) a month.on mobile phone services. That’s more than half the average monthly income in Malawi. Proportionate to earnings, Malawi has the most expensive mobile phone rates in the world.
There is no shortage of complaints within Malawi about expensive phone tariffs but the report cited by the BBC (based on findings by the International Telecommunications Union) shows the extent of the problem. For a week, following the report, I monitored local newspapers reports and the mobile phone rates received no coverage at all. Not even by the growing number of columnists and opinion writers.
Why the silence on a story that is obviously of pressing concern to ordinary Malawians, and which made a splash internationally?
Only Nyasa Times, Malawi’s populist news website, republished a copy-and-paste version of the BBC’s piece. Newspapers are the main agenda setters within local media in Malawi, and they didn’t cover the story at all.
There are two major mobile phone companies in the country, Airtel Malawi and TNM. These are also the main providers of mobile internet. Those familiar with the political economy of the local media will understand the media blackout on the mobile rates story. Like the rest of the world, Malawi’s newspaper industry depends on advertising revenue and mobile phone companies have become indispensable source of that revenue. The media industry cannot afford to get on the wrong side of these mobile phone corporations.
For a long time, the Malawian government and NGOs were the largest advertisers in local newspapers but mobile phone companies have now taken over because they are very consistent advertisers and they buy prime space in bulk —daily space for a whole year in some cases. There is fierce competition between the duopoly of Airtel Malawi and TNM and this drives the need for endless media advertising between the two.
An insider working with Airtel says: “all mobile phones companies buy strip ads [advertising banners on the bottom of front and back page] for the whole year.”
A look at a whole week’s run of the country’s two dailies, The Nation and The Daily Times shows strip ads alternating between the two mobile phone companies. If Airtel has a front page on Monday, TNM will have the back page, and on Tuesday it is the other way round.
According to the insider, these strip ads are worth MK180,000 a day (about US$400), which means newspapers make roughly MK131 million (US$291,111) annually from strip ads alone. Add these strip ads to various full-page adverts worth an average of MK280,000 (US$622) per advert, and you can see that the revenue is colossal.
This insider continued that of course the government and NGOs are important but they are not as valuable as mobile phone companies because government and NGOs mostly place job vacancies and press statements, which they don’t advertise every day, those ads are not in color—color is more expensive—and they do not book expensive prime spots like front and back pages.
This may explain the newspaper blackout on the mobile phones rates story. The mobile phone companies may not issue editorial directives but, as they say, only a foolish dog bites the hand that feeds it. Newspapers know exactly what to do. Of course the local media always have a go at politicians, the government and the civil society.
The media responsibility, always, is to hold to account those holding public positions. But this must include powerful corporations that rip off poor Malawians, 75 per cent of whom live on less than US$2 a day.
Of course Malawian media does a lot of commendable work reporting on government excesses and corruption in high places but the media know that they can afford to get on the wrong side of the government and politicians. The media know they have a public backing should the government withdraw advertising revenue or introduce draconian media laws. This was the case in 2010 when the government of the late Bingu wa Mutharika threatened to withdraw advertising from some private media houses such as the Nation Publications Limited.
In 2007 Blantyre Newspaper Limited (BNL) were forced to retract a story on a love triangle involving a Catholic priest, a banker and a married woman. The woman’s husband was seeking a divorce in court after discovering that the wife was having an affair with the two men.
At the time BNL had a debt with the bank where the banker worked and his influence forced the immediate retraction of the story despite the fact that the story was based on a case that took place in an open court. Caroline Somanje, the journalist who wrote the story in one of BNL’s titles, “The Daily Times,” was fired. BNL suspended its General Manager, Jika Nkolokosa, for what the management said was his failure to exercise “sound editorial judgement.”
Corporations in Malawi have more media influence than the government. Sadly, most people only pay attention to government’s efforts to muzzle the press, most through threats and regulation. This means corporate powers in Malawi are left unchecked. It would not surprise me that mobile phone companies also have financial support of the political establishment. Political parties in Malawi are not mandated to disclose their sources of income, and so they don’t.