AP Interview: Populist broadcaster in Malawi

AP News
Posted: Sep 22, 2011 1:59 PM
AP Interview: Populist broadcaster in Malawi

Malawi media mogul Gospel Kazako has had masked thugs torch two of his radio station's vehicles. The president has accused the station of fanning anti-government demonstrations that turned violent.

Kazako says his job is getting the news out, not responding to such threats.

"We've not reacted after we were attacked and we refuse to blame anybody because we don't know who our enemies are," he said in an interview. "We know our mission is far beyond the pain they may inflict on us."

Since leaving a job with the state broadcaster to start his ZBS radio station in 2005, the 43-year-old son of a security guard and a homemaker has seen his mission as reaching the poor, the majority in the southern African nation.

He says his station speaks to listeners like "a trusted friend who can tell them the truth which the rich try to suppress."

It features programs like "Tlime Bwanji?" or "How Do We Farm?" In that show, producers talk to peasant farmers about improving production. Another show, "Masomphenya pa Chitukuko" or "Visions for Development," gives villagers a virtual town hall to discuss local concerns.

The formula has made him one of Malawi's richest men. But he says he remembers his roots. He certainly speaks with populist flair.

"The rich try to continue disorganizing the poor by giving them low-quality education so that they continue being oppressed," he said. "As broadcasters we should strive to give our audiences the untainted truth. By telling the truth we are not looking for (political) change, no, we want transformation. If you want transformation you need true and accurate information that is not tainted."

When Kazako recalls his childhood, he speaks of having only one pair of pants for school and often going without meals. When he sits down with his two sons and daughter over a three-course meal, he reminds them that others may not be so fortunate.

"Some people don't know how it feels to be poor," he said. "The majority of policymakers throughout the world have not felt the real pain of the poor."

It seems inevitable that politicians would see a rival in Kazako, who has wealth and influence. But Kazako has not always been on the wrong side of the government.

The Malawi Electoral Commission, in consultation with all political parties in Malawi, chose ZBS over state-run MBC as the official broadcaster for the 2009 general elections because it was trusted.

Then anti-government demonstrations swept across Malawi in July amid worsening economic conditions and complaints about President Bingu wa Mutharika's autocratic style. At least 19 people were killed by police trying to put down the protests. A general strike called by anti-government activists on Wednesday saw shops and banks across the country closed, but business was normal again Thursday.

Some critics say the president has become increasingly dictatorial and intolerant of criticism since he was first elected in 2004. Elections are not due again until 2014.

ZBS and other independent broadcasters covered the protests straightforwardly, with reporters across the country giving live updates.

The government communications regulatory agency called such reporting dangerous, saying people listening to the broadcasts in peaceful areas were encouraged to protest.

"That's why we ordered a stop to all live broadcasts of the demonstrations," said Malawi Communications Regulatory Authority spokesman Zadziko Mankhambo.

But the Media Institute for Southern Africa, a media rights group, said the live broadcasts were a public service and could have kept listeners out of harm's way.

Each of the last five years, ZBS has been the MISA Malawi Electronic Media House of the Year. Its journalists have also been finalists for the CNN/MultiChoice African Journalist of the Year Award.

Kazako says the secret to his success is that he chose his audience. He says other radio stations that emerged after the fall of one-party dictatorship in 1993 had the elite in their mind as their target audience.

"I thought I should target people without money," he said. "I thought radio was fluid, it can change everything if managed well."