Saturday, January 2, 2010

2009: My experiences as a blogger

Just 10 years ago, online journalism was a secret package alien to Malawi- so secret that not many within the country knew its contents.

Some dark age must surely have been reigning: what with the absence of Malawi’s big media house establishments online! Online media seemed something of impossible remoteness very few- and these were those who had ever been outside the country to such countries as the United Kingdom, USA, Germany, where the online culture was something embedded in their media culture as in stone- could be sure the waves would strike beach anytime soon..

Blogging was thus out of question for a people who had scant information about online media technologies, more so when what those in know valued about modern media was scarcely encouraging.

It was like knowing an art by report, other than experience; by theory other than deeds- a situation tantamount to knowing a man by speech and company, instead of the daily trail of his life.

Then, Malawians living abroad, notably United Kingdom, learnt the art that side of the oceans. These were mostly people with dissenting views and human rights advocates. That was to become part of the beginning of such online publications as Nyasa Times. Others have since joined the bandwagon, one of which being (established as late as March 2009!).

However, some of the country’s founding media establishments were yet to join the bandwagon. A good case in point in Blantyre Newspapers Limited (BNL). BNL is Malawi’s oldest publishing house, and started publishing as early as 1895. Yet, the company still found online publishing more luxurious than habit-forming.

Same with Nation Publications Limited (NPL), the country’s next big print media institution. NPL could, however, be excused for entertaining some vain delays: it only came onto the Malawi media scene in the early 1990s.

This was a time when the winds of democracy were blowing across the Southern African Development Community (SADC) member state, and the new entrant- founded by political activist Aleke Kadonaphani Banda – influenced, in a way, the outcome of the elections.

Malawians overwhelmingly voted for multiparty democracy, ending a 31-year iron fist rule of former dictator, Dr. Hastings Kamuzu Banda.. When people Okayed multiparty democracy in a June 1993 National Referendum, the black curtain hanging over freedom of expression guarantees made by United Nations member states was half-open.

In the country’s 1994 elections, won by former president Bakili Muluzi, the work was complete. 1994 can thus be described as the Genesis of respect for freedom of expression and other human rights freedoms.

Many newspaper publications were to follow; the likes of The Democrat, UDF News, The Democratus, The Enquirer, The Mirror, The Country Register, Pan-African Press Service, Discover Magazine, Fairlane Magazine, Pride Magazine and a host of private radio stations. Whereas Malawi Broadcasting Corporation remained the sole broadcaster since Malawi’s independence from Britain in 1964, the advent of multiparty democracy provided new opportunities for the country’s broadcasting media, with Power 101 FM becoming the first privately registered radio station in 1998.

Now, Malawi has 13 other radio stations including Radio Maria, Radio Islam, Calvary Family Church Radio, Capital FM, Joy FM, MIJ FM, MBC Radio 2 FM, Dzimwe Community Radio, Nkhota-kota Community Radio, ABC Radio, Radio Alinafe, Mzuzu Community Radio among others, and three TV stations in Malawi Television (state-owned), Luntha and AFJ. It must be noted that most radio stations and two TV stations are owned by religious institutions, so the aim is not mainly to disseminate (hard) news related materials but evangelism.

Community radio stations are also becoming part of the norm, as communities realize that they can influence positive change in their areas.

All these media developments would have been achieved as early as 1964 to 1980, had it been that the country’s democracy was not botched. The country first had multiparty (read, democratic) elections in 1964 when about four parties contested for the presidency and members of parliament in the elections. However, as was to happen elsewhere in Africa, where Africa’s first generation clung on to power as the West fought the battle against communism, Malawi fell into that age-old trap of power. Too much of it corrupts!

Therefore, Malawi went to the first multiparty polls again in 1994, after the long, lonely journey from 1964, and many print publications and radio stations came onto the scene. The beginning was nowhere insight for online media, what with the first privately owned radio station being registered in 1998!

Things were, however, changing after the country’s second elections in 1999. People begun to talk about vote rigging and other issues too sensitive for the nascent radio stations and newspapers. 31 years on one party regime and no real freedoms had meant that people who were working for state-run media were not journalists. Most of them were party zealots and secondary school teachers.

The in-thing then was to have their news articles pre-written, whereas they would only be required to fill in pre-designed gaps. There was nothing like being enterprising; you were doing what the boss had sketched for you.

There surely was need for new forms of media to accommodate the non-conventional dissenting views. Online publications like Nyasa Times provided the sure answer. It must be noted that most Malawians based abroad frequent Nyasa Times, though some have misforgivings about its values.

People can use any sort of language on Nyasa Times, and most people who comment on various issues use raw, foul language many Malawians loathe. They say Malawi is a God-fearing nation.

This has led many people to be suspicious of online publications, wondering whether the people who run them have any values at all. But for Malawian journalists, the online publications have provided a means of getting their work published in a country where the media industry is still small. This has led to poor perks and very few complain. Why? The long queue waiting for same employment opportunities!

People have come to accept online publications now, and know, more than ever before, that these publications are there to stay. And the country has just now also begun to witness the spiraling on Blogs.

The reasons for the escalation of number of Blogs, and thus Bloggers, are too fold. They either worked for Nyasa Times and (for those just joining the growing online industry) and never received their promised pay. While employment contracts are signed between the two parties, the two biggest online publications are published by people who live abroad. In addition, online publications such as Nyasa Times are not registered in Malawi, as the law requires, because the owners are afraid of lawsuits due to the unsubstantiative nature of the work they publish and the defamatory nature of their stories.

In the end, the disgruntled contributors consider it better to establish Blogs for the satisfaction aspect of it. They know they will get no, or little money, for their sweat. But they will, at least, be happy and satisfied.

The second reason for the increased number of Blogs is the reason to have an outlet, and this applies to people already working for other media houses- especially state media such as Malawi Television and Malawi Broadcasting Corporation. They will be flaunting contractual obligations if they write for other publications, including those online, so they write for themselves.

However, there is still room for improvement. The country still has few numbers of Bloggers. A March 2009 Development Media Africa (Dema) report on online media in Malawi revealed that the country has less than 7000 Bloggers.

In addition, the Dema report also added, almost embarrassingly, that there are only six (6) people with Flip Video camcorders in Malawi. What is more? Two (2) of these Flip Videos are now out of use (breakdowns) and only four (4) are working!

It further said Malawians have started reading other people’s Blogs the past three years, reading habitually that is. It seems people want to know what is in the mind of others now than ever before.

Talking about by experience as a Blogger, well, I find the work rewarding. At least on the satisfactory level of it. It’s only last month that I monetized my Blog, to get a little something out of it because internet costs in Malawi are exorbitant. That is scarcely strange in a country where only 6 per cent is connected to the National Electricity Grid.

Also, Malawi has less than four internet service providers rendering end-user costs a little out of rich for many people in Malawi. Internet cafĂ© owners pay something between 500 Euros and 600 Euros for quick internet services- and the ‘quick’ stands for something like two-minutes for you to finally sign in into your email or Blog account when checking mail, surfing or posting materials!

But I am satisfied with the responses I get from people who e-mail me ( from all over the world. I often wonder how they come across my Blog, Here, I tackle issues I feel are Malawian in nature, or have implications for Malawi.

But I have also landed into trouble for doing just this. I once posted an article about The State House. I posted something about my feelings on the Communication Strategy that was being employed at The State House, the residence of incumbent President, Dr. Bingu wa Mutharika.

The then State House Press Officer (who got the sack, I suspect for adding no value to the State House, a couple of months ago) Mr. Chikumbutso Mtumodzi was victimizing online journalists, me inclusive. In the first place, he engaged media spies who were spying on fellow members of the media. Their task was tom report to State House the names of online journalists, most of them were using pen names, who were writing for online publications including Nyasa Times.

The main target was those writing for Nyasa Times and Blogs perceived pro-opposition. As I am writing, there is a Black Book of journalists perceived anti-government something at The State House, and I am sad that I happen to be there. For what reason I don’t know; I am a humble citizen. But one who will stand for the Constitution of Malawi when times come to choose between individuals and the Constitution. And such times were many in the past six years!

These journalists or Bloggers were then being victimized. The process went like this: The State House Press Officer would invite you to the House whenever the President wanted to have an audience with the country’s journalists. You would have an Invitation Letter like the rest, of course, but Mr. Mtumodzi would be personally there at the gate waiting for you.

He would then single out the Black-Booked journals, all of them unsuspecting, and tell you that you were invited by mistake. The Invitation Letters would then be snatched from you, though they had your names inscribed on them, and given to State media reporters. You would always have seven to 10 state-run media reporters at such functions, with one (or two for the very lucky ones) representative from the other private media houses.

The other strategy would be like this: State House officials would give you Pass IDs during the President’s functions, enabling you to take pictures of the President at close range. The State House Press Officer would then come and snatch them from you, sometimes telling you bluntly: “you don’t write good things about this government. We know you have been sent”!

It is always embarrassing to have your ID or Pass snatched in public. It was one of the government’s strategies to make you mind what you write, and you always had that feeling that if you want to attend a Presidential function and take his photos at close range, you really need to become the ‘good boy’ you deserve!

I can say without fear of contradiction that I have experienced these things, along side ‘open’ Nyasa Times journalist Madalitso Kateta. As a result, Kateta’s Blog (christened willsmadyk) is the epitaph of a ‘good boy’ the world wants him to be.

It is one day, however, I shall live to remember. As Malawians prepared to go the polls on May19, 2009 (to elect a Head of State and Government and 193 members of parliament), I bumped into the State House Press Officer himself in Blantyre City Business District and greeted him. He did not answer.

I did it the second time and he answered. But the answer was clearly a way of brushing you off. He said “I am fine, thank you”! Mr. Mtumodzi was in the company of three City Vehicle Parking Fees collectors I knew. The City collectors work for the City Assembly but also ask for cash if it so happens that a big government official parks by. In that case, they will not even charge any parking fees, but will ask for ‘consideration’ (in terms of cash) from the big government or political gurus.

In Mr. Mtumodzi, they thought they got one such guru. Cash delivered at the fingertips! I am big enough to know that I was not wanted at that place, let alone my greeting, so I went on, on my way.

I met two of the parking fee collectors twenty minutes later, and was puzzled by the question they put across me.

“How do you two co-relate? Mr. Mtumodzi told us that he never wants to come anywhere closer you; let alone being seen with you”!

I told them he thought I wrote badly about government, his government.

That is as far as it can go in Malawi, 15 years down the road, in our second try at multiparty democracy.

It may not be over for me, I think. Mr. Mtumodzi was sacked as State House Press Officer a couple of months ago. Now the State House has no Press Officer, two months down the line.

Now he (Mtumodzi) is the Director of Information in Malawi. He is my Director, and he would surely not be proud to be such. Only that I am yet to meet him in his new appointment.

Of course, there are times I like him. I will never forget the time he told Mr. Sam Mpasu, an opposition politician from the United Democratic Front (UDF) that he was not eligible to comment on any issues in Malawi because his (Mpasu’s) son, Joseph, was in prison!

The fact still remains that I get more satisfaction writing what I do on my Blog, and receiving encouraging feedback from all over the world. I have even turned my Blog into a public forum: readers ask me to investigate an issue and report to them through the Blog, or ask many interesting questions they want me to answer.

My Blog is a humanitarian effort; I serve myself, and more over, others.


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