Human Rights and African Airwaves: Mediating Equality on the Chichewa Radio

Human Rights and African Airwaves: Mediating Equality on the Chichewa Radio

by Harri Englund


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Human Rights and African Airwaves focuses on Nkhani Zam'maboma, a popular Chichewa news bulletin broadcast on Malawi’s public radio. The program often takes authorities to task and questions much of the human rights rhetoric that comes from international organizations. Highlighting obligation and mutual dependence, the program expresses, in popular idioms and local narrative forms, grievances and injustices that are closest to Malawi’s impoverished public. Harri Englund reveals broadcasters’ everyday struggles with state-sponsored biases and a listening public with strong views and a critical ear. This fresh look at African-language media shows how Africans effectively confront inequality, exploitation, and poverty.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780253223470
Publisher: Indiana University Press
Publication date: 10/19/2011
Pages: 308
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.80(d)

About the Author

Harri Englund is Reader in Social Anthropology at the University of Cambridge. He is author of Prisoners of Freedom: Human Rights and the African Poor, winner of the 2006 Amaury Talbot Prize of the Royal Anthropological Institute.

Read an Excerpt

Human Rights and African Airwaves

Mediating Equality on the Chichewa Radio

By Harri Englund

Indiana University Press

Copyright © 2011 Harri Englund
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-253-35677-2


Rights and Wrongs on the radio

"Government says it is committed to ensuring that rural areas are developed." Broadcast in the main news bulletin of the Malawi Broadcasting Corporation (MBC) in 2006, this headline did not announce news in any obvious sense. Novelty was less important than the timeless legitimacy of the state, whatever the composition of the government conducting its affairs. The headline, in point of fact, was itself timeless. The year of its broadcast could have been any of Malawi's independence since 1964, when after three decades of Kamuzu Banda's autocratic regime, the country was ruled by two ostensibly democratic presidents, Bakili Muluzi (1994–2004) and Bingu wa Mutharika (2004 to the present). When I first arrived in Malawi in the twilight years of Banda's regime, it was the MBC's weather forecast that represented to me the station's disregard for imparting information. I discovered that the weather forecast had had the same refrain for decades, regardless of the season: "The winds will be light and variable but gusty in stormy areas." With its caveat and tautology, it seemed to sum up an ethos whose principal interest was to broadcast platitudes that would apply to any time and anywhere in Malawi.

Ethnographic fieldwork has enabled me to appreciate what lies beneath the predictable news headlines and the unchanging weather forecast. Villagers and township dwellers I worked with on other research projects drew my attention to Nkhani Zam'maboma at the dawn of the new millennium, the period when new private radio stations had, it seemed to me, consigned the MBC to its long overdue oblivion. Here was a program, I came to learn, which engaged Malawians' imagination of power and injustice far more effectively than the various civic-education initiatives of human rights organizations that were all the rage. Once admitted to work as an ethnographer in the newsroom, I also came to realize the value of this program for the MBC journalists' self-esteem. It was one of those rare programs in which professionalism as public service could flourish. Excruciating personal dilemmas and profound inequalities inside the MBC gave me insights into how state broadcasters experienced and negotiated the problems of bias and misinformation they were so often accused of (see chapter 3). Nkhani Zam'maboma also complicated another, less often remarked, facet of the MBC. It stood in contrast to the didactic tone of much else that was broadcast there and elsewhere in Malawi. The didactic tone was based on the unquestioned value of developmentalism as a justification for the delivery of paternalist messages to the impoverished masses. Nkhani Zam'maboma enabled the poor to make claims, however remote the form of those claims was from the ones promoted by human rights activists and aid agencies.

It should be clear, therefore, that Nkhani Zam'maboma complicates rather than exculpates the work of the MBC. Yet precisely because the journalistic practices informing the program, and the claims and comments it inspired in villages and townships, provide an alternative perspective on Malawian engagements with human rights, obligations, poverty, and inequality, this perspective also necessarily questions the ease with which human rights organizations have condemned the MBC. ARTICLE 19 — an international organization whose name evokes the Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights that calls for the freedom of expression and open access to information — has called MBC journalists "slavish apparatchiks" (n.d.: 13). A look at the history of public broadcasting in Malawi certainly makes such seething strictures understandable, but the opportunity to explore critics' own convictions should not be lost. Human rights organizations' criticisms of media outlets draw on the expectation that the individual human being ought to be independent in forming opinions and accessing information no less than in pursuing his or her life on the basis of those opinions and information. By so doing, however, human rights activists may miss out on other ways of generating knowledge and claims about injustice, not least within the very institutions they criticize. One interest in regard to Nkhani Zam'maboma is its capacity to circumvent certain journalistic practices that have long been implicated in perpetuating injustice.

The Paternalism of Public Broadcasting

The BBC started broadcasting in Britain in 1922, and two years later a broadcasting station was established in South Africa, followed by one in Kenya in 1927 (Mytton 1983: 52). The first stations on the African continent, including the one in Harare (then Salisbury) from 1932 onward, were aimed exclusively at white listeners. The Second World War gave the colonial governments a reason to start broadcasting to African audiences, primarily as a means of informing them about their relatives conscripted to fight in the war. Radio Lusaka, launched in 1941 in Zambia (then Northern Rhodesia), expanded to become the Central African Broadcasting Station. After the end of the Central African Federation, it dissolved into three different national broadcasters, including the MBC. Radio Lusaka was the first station in Africa aimed exclusively at Africans, and its broadcasting in African languages pioneered a policy favoring African languages in broadcasting in British colonies (Fraenkel 1959: 17). The policy was somewhat different in French territories, where French was given priority in broadcasting (Mytton 1983: 53).

The first receivers for Radio Lusaka were placed on public sites such as administrative centers, chiefs' courts, and mission stations (Fraenkel 1959: 17). This initiated a pattern by which radio listening has been as much a public as a private phenomenon in Africa (Larkin 2008: 71). The British language policy was, however, conducive to creating a mass audience based in domestic settings, and the ownership of receivers expanded rapidly in British colonies. Technological progress was crucial to this expansion. Wireless sets requiring electricity from main power supplies were soon supplanted by the "Saucepan Special" powered by large batteries, itself made obsolete in the 1950s by the arrival of transistor radios (Mytton 2000: 23). Although initially more expensive than the "Saucepan," transistor radios did not require expensive batteries, and a flood of imports established the portable radio as a feature of everyday life among many Africans. As discussed below, Malawi is one of those African countries where the radio has held its own as virtually the only mass medium. The history of technology is evident in the Chichewa word wayilesi (wireless) that is still the most common term for radio in Malawi.

The production of an African public was inseparable from the wider colonial project of creating subjects that could be ruled and enlightened at the same time (van der Veur 2002: 82–85). In this regard, it is instructive to com pare the BBC's early intentions at home and the nature of its journalistic and organizational influence on emerging radio stations in Africa. The question of paternalism in the British model of public service broadcasting remains a moot point (see, e.g., Fortner 2005: 29; LeMahieu 1988: 145–148), but it is clear that class differences did cast a shadow over the BBC's inception. The ideal of service was "animated by a sense of moral purpose and of social duty on behalf of the community, aimed par ticu larly at those most in need of reforming — the lower classes" (Scannell and Cardiff 1991: 9). Recent theoretical currents in the social sciences, inspired by Michel Foucault, have ingeniously discerned the exercise of power in vari ous reformist projects to improve the lives of the disadvantaged (see, e.g., Cruikshank 1999; Rose 1999). Such a perspective may, however, gloss over significant differences in the ways in which paternalism could inform broadcasting in Britain and Africa.

Both sides had their pioneers, whose ideological commitments illuminate genuine differences in the nature and extent of paternalism in broadcasting. Harry Franklin was the director of information in the colonial administration when he started Radio Lusaka. One of his explanations for the initiative to start broadcasting to an African audience stated that "formal educational methods, taking perhaps two or three generations to produce a comparatively civilized African people capable of working reasonably well in the development of the territory, were too slow in the face of the obvious possibilities of rapid advance in Central Africa. We believed that if broadcasting could reach the masses, it could play a great part in the enlightenment" (quoted in Fraenkel 1959: 17). Compare this statement with the words of John Reith, the first director general of the BBC: "Our responsibility is to carry into the greatest possible number of homes everything that is best in every department of human knowledge, endeavour and achievement, and to avoid the things which are, or may be, hurtful" (1924: 34). Among his many examples, Reith mentioned the broadcasting of opera — "a comparatively small number of people were in a position to hear opera before" (1924: 175) — and children's programs that "may serve as an antidote to the harm which is being wrought on the children of the present day by the conditions under which they live" (1924: 185). Both Franklin and Reith were enthralled by the idea of enlightenment, but their approach to those they deemed to be in need of it (African natives and British lower classes) was not identical. "It is better to over-estimate the mentality of the public than to under-estimate it," Reith (1924: 34) wrote, alluding to the promise of public broadcasting as a class leveler. For Franklin, "a comparatively civilized" public had to be produced before it could assume its role in the development of a society.

Much as revisionist perspectives on colonialism emphasize a process of negotiation and mutual influence between the colonizer and the colonized (see, e.g., Dirks 1992), it may not be accurate to view broadcasting in Africa in the same terms as other colonial intrusions. Broadcasting stations in Africa assumed a singular organizational form, one that was more centralized and more closely supervised by governments than, for example, the BBC ever was (Fardon and Furniss 2000: 9; Nyamnjoh 2005a: 47). State monopoly over broadcasting intensified after independence in countries such as Malawi. It was only in 1998 that the legal status of the MBC shifted from a state broadcaster to a public-service broadcaster (ARTICLE 19 2003), and even then, as discussed below, the transformation was more apparent than real. The effects of state supervision and censorship on the MBC were particularly severe during the period of one-party rule under Banda. Similar problems during the era of multiparty democracy, the more immediate context for Nkhani Zam'ma boma, are discussed below and in chapter 3.

The problem with a perspective that focuses solely on state monopoly, then and now, is its inability to portray Nkhani Zam'maboma as anything other than an aberration from the norm. By making the program seem almost accidental in the perennial condition of bias and misinformation, the perspective prevents insight into the complexities of production and reception in the history of the MBC. It was precisely because the MBC's news and reports were so implausible that critical listenership started to evolve in Malawi. Jack Mapanje, an academic and poet who was detained without charge toward the end of Banda's regime, has recalled that "what appeared in the local papers, what was heard on the radio, was often irrelevant to the meaning of the event" (2002: 183). Under such circumstances, the "faculty of speculation and quick perception of events had to be highly developed" (2002: 183). The faculty of speculation did not become redundant with multiparty democracy, nor was it the prerogative of Malawi's intelligentsia. It was on the foundation of this critical listenership that the success of Nkhani Zam'maboma was erected.

At the same time, state monopoly and paternalism have long co-existed with a desire to elicit participation from listeners. White directors at the Central African Broadcasting Station cherished their trips to rural areas to record local music (Fraenkel 1959: 25), and nostalgia for a similar program, known as Nyimbo Zam'maboma (Songs from the Districts) and discontinued in the 1990s because of financial difficulties, was intense among the MBC's senior journalists during my fieldwork. The involvement of listeners through letters and interviews was a concern at the MBC even during the darkest years of postcolonial dictatorship. In the early 1980s, an MBC journalist, drawing the historical connection to British broadcasting a little too definitely, commented with considerable optimism: "It is good to see that the rigidity of the structure inherited from the BBC is being quickly broken down in order to allow the broadcaster and audience to interact positively" (quoted in Wedell 1986: 288).

These complexities call for careful consideration of contradictory practices within the apparently stifling approach to public broadcasting. The intent is not so much to justify those practices as to recognize the forms of critical reflection that both broadcasters and listeners have had at their disposal. The Central African Broadcasting Station provides another unlikely example of such a space for alternatives. Reminiscing about Pepe Zulu, the station's ambitious and argumentative Nyanja (Chichewa) announcer, a white broadcaster noted, "In most offices I knew in the Rhodesias he would have been dismissed after a week, perhaps because a semi-literate white girl employed as a filing-clerk would complain that he was a 'cheeky kaffir'" (Fraenkel 1959: 50). Mutual suspicion and the low levels of formal education among MBC journalists are significant, but it is also necessary to consider how the oppressive conditions of their work have themselves given rise to subtle forms of critique and claim-making. At the same time, complexity is magnified by the simultaneous possibility that the idea of public service, expressed as serving the government of the day, does attach genuine pride to their work.

Radio Nation

The launching and early days of Nkhani Zam'maboma will be traced in chapter 4, but it is important to note that it emerged in the context of unprecedented competition on Malawi's airwaves. In the aftermath of the Catholic bishops' pastoral letter in 1992 — the first publicly voiced criticism of Banda's regime in years — the minister of state announced the government's endorsement of a free press (Chimombo and Chimombo 1996: 26). After the democratic transition, the National Broadcasting Policy, drawn up by the Ministry of Information, determined in 1998 that radio broadcasting was to be liberalized with immediate effect, backed by a new Communications Act in the same year (ARTICLE 19 2003). In anticipation of competition from private radio stations, the MBC launched its Radio Two in 1997 to offer more popular music and innovative program formats than the conservative Radio One was able to accommodate. One of the innovations was to broadcast Radio Two around the clock, as opposed to the nineteen hours of Radio One per day, whereas Radio Two's use of English and Chichewa contrasted with Radio One's own innovation to start broadcasting news bulletins in seven languages. Although its broadcasting style assumed a youthful outlook, Radio Two sought to cater to a broad range of listeners, including programs on children, cooking, sports, the disabled, and agriculture. Some of the topics were therefore the same as on Radio One, but Radio Two explored new interactive methods through, for example, talk shows and phone-in programs. An internal document at the MBC explained their popularity as a result of "instant listener participation and feedback thus underlining the radio's most striking feature which is immediacy."

The present-day congestion on Africa's airwaves makes it easy to forget how recent the diversification of radio broadcasting is on the continent (Fardon and Furniss 2000: 3; van der Veur 2002: 93). When the first multiparty elections for over thirty years were held in Malawi in 1994, only two radio stations operated in the country: the MBC and an Evangelical Christian FM station run by the African Bible College and largely dependent on programs from the United States (Chipangula 2003: 24). The excitement created by the pastoral letter, read in the Catholic churches through out Malawi (see Englund 1996a; Schoffeleers 1999), gathered momentum despite the MBC's campaign of misinformation and pro-government reporting. For those who could access them, foreign stations such as the BBC's World Service and the South African Broadcasting Corporation proved far more informative sources than the MBC. It was only in 1998 that two more radio stations started to broadcast in Malawi, followed by a steady trickle of applications for a broadcasting license. By 2006, sixteen radio stations (including the two MBC stations) were operational in Malawi, nine of them boasting nationwide coverage, intermittent problems with transmission notwithstanding.


Excerpted from Human Rights and African Airwaves by Harri Englund. Copyright © 2011 Harri Englund. Excerpted by permission of Indiana University Press.
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Table of Contents

Part 1. Human Rights, African Alternatives
1. Rights and Wrongs on the Radio
2. Obligations to Dogs: Between Liberal and Illiberal Analytics
3. Against the Occult: Journalists and Scholars in Search of Alternatives
Part 2. The Ethos of Equality
4. A Nameless Genre: Newsreading as Storytelling
5. Inequality Is Old News: Editors as Authors
6. Stories Become Persons: Producing Knowledge about Injustice
Part 3. The Aesthetic of Claims
7. Cries and Whispers: Shaming without Naming
8. Christian Critics: An Illiberal Public?
9. Beyond the Parity Principle
Appendix 1. Presidential News
Appendix 2. Graveyard Visit
Appendix 3. Drunken Children
Appendix 4. Giant Rat
Appendix 5. Reclaiming Virginity
Appendix 6. The Truth about Porridge
Appendix 7. "Makiyolobasi Must Stop Bewitching at Night"

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University of Birmingham - Karin Barber

An inspired choice of topic. The conceptual framework within which it is presented has been worked out with impressive clarity and delicacy.

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