Saturday, September 12, 2009

MALAWIAN MEDIA AND THE INTERNET

BACK GROUND

When several websites published the controversial report by Plan International on Child Labour in Malawi’s tobbacco estates, a hornet’s nest was stirred. The Malawi government was up in arms against it to the extent that the Labour Minister and a Plan Malawi official held a press conference to counter some of the points raised in the report titled “ Hard Work, Little Pay, Long Hours” But the report had reached out to a lot of people through the internet and was picked up by various influential news sites all over the world.

A few years back a reknowned journalist and blogger, Victor Kaonga, predicted on his blog that the Malawi 2009 Elections will be fought on the internet. His predictions came true in the run up to the May 19 General elections when several candidates including independent, James Nyondo, MCP’s John Tembo and Petra’s Kamuzu Chibambo developed websites to explain their manifestos. But it was a move by Zodiak Radio to start broadcasting via the internet that captured the hearts of many Malawians especially those living in the diaspora. For the first time people had a chance to listen to a live announcement of the results and this was spiced up by the recognition of Zodiak by the Electoral Commission as the official results broadcaster of the 2009 Elections. Zodiak continues to broadcast their live programs online.

Those that follow Malawi politics are familiar with the hatred that the Malawi Government or the ruling DPP has with the award winning online news site, Nyasa Times. In a battle that recently turned to be Nyasa Times vs Dr. Ntaba, DPP and the government accusses the website of publishing false stories about it and claimes that it gets its funding from the former president and Dr. Mutharika’s nemesis, Dr. Muluzi. The fact is Nyasa Times is widely read and every published story, true or false, reaches out to a lot of people and qouted by several other news sites.

These three examples and many others shows how popular the internet is becoming to Malawians and the potential it has to shape the media.

PRESENT SITUATION

Apart from the award winning Nyasa Times and Zodiak Radio, there are several other websites that reports various issues concerning Malawi. The two traditional diaries, The Nation and The Daily Times have gone a step further to have websites where they publish some stories carried out in their papers. The Blantyre Newspapers Limited, publishers of The Daily Times also have websites for The Sunday Times and Malawi News.

These are media houses that give us balanced information and are well respected in the media circles but they fail to live to their expectations when it comes to online reporting. They are not updated in time for the hungry audience that eagerly wait for breaking news from Malawi. The Malawi News was last updated on 30th November 2008 and the Sunday Times on March 18 2009. Their counterparts in the neighbouring countries are doing fine in online reporting like New Vision and Daily Monitor in Uganda, The Zimbabwean in Zimbabwe and Lusaka Times in Zambia.

There are also some websites that dedicate their time to reporting news about Malawi like; Malawi Digest, Best of Malawi, Stories on Malawi, Malawi Financial Mirror , Timve Magazine and several blogs by Malawians listed on the Mablog (blogging Malawi) website. The two dailies are better placed to be leaders in reporting and being trusted online news sources because of their well trained reporters across the country, their vast experience and professionalism. Several radio stations also have websites most of which have no current news and are not regularly updated. Another website worthy mentioning is Capital FM which rebroadcasts their Day Break Malawi programme on their website. Kwacha FM and Radio Yako are also good Malawian owned online radios but are rarely on the ground to report issues in Malawi and put much emphasis on music. Recently Radio Yako agreed to be broadcasting the popular Channel Africa’s programme, Zochitika mu Africa on their website.

It is a known fact that the internet is shaping the flow of news reporting all over the world. The coming in of social networking sites like Facebook, Twitter, Friendfeed; video sharing like You Tube and Hulu; social bookmarking sites like Digg, Delicious, Reddit and Mixx has not spared the traditional way of news reporting. In the recent elections in Iran, Facebook and Twitter played a very important role in informing the world of what was happening where the main stream media had no access. Lots of videos were uploaded on You Tube, pictures on Flickr and Facebook depicting the ugly scenes of the violence in Iran dring the elections. It was also used in the Gabon Elections, Barack Obama and Hilary Clinton’s visits to Africa. The popular BBC Africa Have Your say also uses Twitter and a Facebook group to get views from people all over the world.

WAY FORWARD

Internet technology is moving at a faster pace and this generation is moving with it. Media houses in Malawi needs to move with technology to enhance the image of the country to the world. They need to look for ways to earn money on their websites in form of adverts. Advertisers look for websites which generate a lot of traffic and traffic follows several things on a website including content, design and simplicity. Developers are now turning to the mobile internet which has a great potential to be the next big thing.

Days of static websites are fast fading and being replaced by regularly updated websites and mobile phone compatible websites.With the coming in of RSS and feeds technology, readers just subscribe to the websites and read the news as they happen on their feed readers like Google Reader. Apart from the Nyasa Times which has recently upgraded their website so that one can subscribe to their feeds, the dailies are yet to embrace the technology while the personal blogs rely on Atom.

Thousands of Malawians are now on Facebook and few others on Twitter but they are yet to see a real impact of the local media on these sites. One can follow news from CNN, BBC, New York Times, The Guardian on twitter but fail to read their own local news from Malawi save for a few passionate Malawians who follow where Malawian news is and bring it on Twitter and Facebook.

A lot of celebrities are now on Twitter and Facebook. Our development partners are tweeting, Obama tweets and many other popular politicians. The White House maintains a blog where it breaks out important announcements, transcripts of various speeches daily briefings and weekly addresses. This is the way news is being shared all over the world and Malawian media needs to be fully involved.

I wait for the day when my favourite paper, The Sunday Times will form a group to interact with readers on Facebook, submit news on Delicious, Digg or Reddit and be on Twitter to alert us on latest news. I long for the time I will be able to browse Malawi News, Weekend Nation or the recently established evening news, Weekend Times on my Nokia 6070. Only then will the world know the real Malawi not the image Madonna built, or the western media shapes, but the warm heart of Africa that we all know. Dr. Ntaba will be the happiest person on earth for he will no longer grace our televisions to refute a false story published on Nyasa Times.