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09/02/2011

Malawi’s economic crunch hits the media hard

Paper
Employees of The Daily Times and other BP&P papers have been laid off as Malawi faces economic difficulties. Photo by Travis Lupick.

By Travis Lupick

“Dear brethren,” Leonard Chikadya, managing director of Blantyre Printing and Publishing, began the conclusion of a speech to staff on Aug. 30.

 “With a lot of pain in my heart, I have swallowed my pride and, reluctantly, decided that I am going to reduce our head count. I am going to reduce the number of colleagues that we have by 44.”

 Speaking for the leadership of the largest publishing house in Malawi, Chikadya’s words soon reverberated throughout the media environment of the entire country.

 And they were not the only ones.

On the same day, the state-run Malawi Broadcasting Corporation announced that a significant round of layoffs would hit its ranks too. The following morning, just 418 remained of the 700 employees who comprised MBC the day before. 

In a packed cafeteria at BP&P’s head office in Blantyre, Chikadya showed remorse for the situation. 

“I have called this meeting because this problem affects all of us,” he said to some 150 of the company’s 260 staff. “We were all witness to what happened on the 20 of July…but what happened on the 20 of July was just a symptom of the problems we are facing.”

The date Chikadya referenced was initially reserved for peaceful demonstrations aimed at government inaction on foreign reserve shortages and fuel scarcity. But the people’s anger boiled over and by nightfall, riots met with police brutality left 19 dead and scores more injured. 

And so, yesterday, BP&P’s editors, reporters, salespeople, and everybody else that a publishing house requires to function, were told that financial hardships matched by the government’s mismanagement of the economy had reached their doorstep.

“We are all aware of the acute shortage of forex,” Chikadya explained, referring to the country’s dwindling foreign currency reserves. Requests for loans from Malawi’s cash-strapped banks had been denied and negotiations with BP&P’s paper supplier had hit a wall. If action was not taken, Chikadya continued, BP&P would no longer have the capacity to pay for the broadsheet on which it prints Malawi’s news.

Throughout the rest of the day, envelopes circulated as reporters manned their desks until the last of their stories were filed. Even those who knew they were on their way out remained loyal.

“Don’t show it to me,” one was heard as a letter was dropped on his desk. “I will file my article and be gone by the end of the day.”

The morning of Aug. 31, those who remained spoke with nervous optimism. “We live to fight another day,” one BP&P reporter said.

I’m sure the mood over in the newsroom at MBC was similar.

Malawi’s economy is struggling badly. On Aug. 31, two of the country’s biggest media houses felt the weight of these hard times. And 326 of their employees carried it home.

 About the 2011 summer/fall jhr bloggers

 

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Africa Without Maps


  • There's so much more to Africa than predictable headlines about war, famine and AIDS. From Ghanaian beauty pageants to music in Malawi, Africa Without Maps provides a rare glimpse of life in Africa from Journalists for Human Rights interns on the ground.

    Funding for the jhr bloggers is provided by the Government of Canada's Youth International Internship Program.

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