In Malawi, parliamentary proceedings and political scandals dominate the headlines and radio waves. Whether it is a mere press conference or cabinet reshuffling, journalists jump at the chance to report on governmental affairs. The prevalence of political coverage, however, means that other issues are sidelined.
The country’s state of underdevelopment, coupled with intermittent electricity and water shortages, serve as a constant reminder that there is a long way to go in the creation of even the most basic infrastructure.
Undoubtedly, sustainable energy and water management are worthy topics of discussion. Furthermore, clear-cutting in Malawi’s northern region has left large tracks of land barren, and poaching has devastated animal populations in the country’s national parks and game reserves. Nevertheless, such pressing environmental issues remain largely ignored by the mainstream media.
In recent years, a multilateral effort to encourage journalists to cover environmental issues has been underway. Various organizations under the United Nations (UN) banner, including the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and the United Nations Fund for Population Activities (UNFPA), are behind this push driven by global objectives – namely the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs).
For the past two years, MIJ FM reporter Anthony Masamba has been a regular participant in environmental reporting workshops.
Masamba explained that at these workshops, journalists are trained to understand the linkages between climate change and a range of issues, from agriculture and health, to transport. Through these sessions “journalists have been imparted with skills that allow them to write good stories from an informed perspective, as most of these journalists have not been trained to report on environmental issues,” he said. While “most of them have knowledge in journalism – they know how to write,” Masamba explained that many journalists have yet to grasp the technical languages and jargon of environment and climate change.
For this reason, the Malawi Institute of Journalism (MIJ) offers an Environmental Reporting class for certificate and diploma-level students. The course aims to equip students with knowledge on major environmental issues facing the contemporary world, as well as stimulate interest in the topic. The curriculum encompasses environmental issues, ethics, policies and legislation, as well as the idea of sustainable development.
MIJ student Patrick Botha believes that workshops and coursework are a valuable means by which to encourage journalists and journalism students to work to ensure a sustainable environment. “[Journalists] have a role to play and it is their duty to inform the masses and expose issues. There is a need to engage these journalists to create an interest in them to report on such issues,” Botha said.
Undoubtedly, journalists play a crucial role in information dissemination, knowledge acquisition and overall awareness. While media houses are a useful outlet for the promotion of sustainable development and campaigning for social change, clear challenges remain.
“Here in Malawi, if a newspaper is to sell, it must have a political story on the front page,” Masamba explained. “No one will buy a paper with a headline that reads climate change impacts development – Malawians want to read about politics. If a paper has politics on the front page, it will sell like hot cakes,” he added.
At the same time, further challenges arise as a result of the hierarchical newsroom structure. Masamba outlined a typical scenario: “I can have an idea for a story. I write my letter seeking financial support but if my request is not approved, what do I do? I just sit because I cannot support myself to go that far to do just a story.”
Botha explained that for journalists concerned with nabbing a front-page byline, there is even less motivation to report on environmental issues. With such an article, “they will probably make the third, fourth, or twentieth-something page.” According to Botha, another deterrent “is the belief that the majority of people will not bother to read [an environmental story] unless they have nothing better to do.”
Despite the workshops and other efforts, Masamba attests that the impact has not been realized due to a lack of political will. “At the moment in Malawi we do not have a climate change policy. This is a policy that would provide guidelines through which climate change issues can best be addressed or integrated into various programs,” he explained.
Masamba believes that the Malawian government’s failure to implement such a policy is unacceptable. “How do they handle climate change issues without having a climate change policy? This is a policy that would provide guidelines, but they don’t have it,” he explained. “We as journalists have our own challenges, but the government, on their part, must show political will,” Masamba said.
As for the future of environmental reporting in Malawi, Masamba has high hopes. His optimism stems from the country’s new leadership, which has already outlined a way forward. For instance, in place of the Ministry of Energy, Natural Resources and Environment the Joyce Banda administration has established the Ministry of Environment and Climate Change. “In coming up with this ministry, I think this government has shown political will towards addressing issues to do with climate change,” Masamba said.