Homosexuality in Malawi: How objective is the local Media?

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“Gay are abnormal … don’t hide behind HIV / Aids,” reads a newspaper headline in Weekend Nation newspaper of 10th November 2012. The newspaper was quoting a chairperson of Malawi Council of Churches (MMC) Bishop Joseph Bvumbwe. The Bishop was accusing ‘gay rights’ activists of using the prevalence of HIV and aids among gays as a ploy to advance their case for legalisation of homosexuality in Malawi. The newspaper quotes the Bishop:

 “We should not treat abnormality as normality. When there is something abnormal we must recognise it as such and not treat it as normality. The council [MMC] finds it very amusing that human rights groups and other sections of the society use public debates, news articles and other means to promote homosexuality as if it were a national priority when in fact there are a number of minority groups whose issues are more deserving than homosexuality.”

The Weekend Nation does not challenge any of the Bishop’s assertions and it does not provide any response from the accused activists. The Bishop’s criticism clearly addresses two of the country’s foremost human rights activists: Undule Mwakasungula and Gift Trapence. These activists have in the recent past been running an advertorial column (a paid for column) in the same newspaper called “Sexual Minority Forum”.

Malawi is a very conservative country. The majority of the people I know, including some ‘human rights activists’, strangely, are against legalisation of homosexuality in the country. Arguments against legalisation are mainly based on a couple of historically flawed perceptions. The first is that homosexuality is western culture and contradicts Malawi’s way of life. The second is that homosexuality is against teachings of God and it is unwelcome in ‘God fearing’ Malawi.

Yet a body of evidence shows that homosexuality existed in Africa long before the arrival of western missionaries and Arab traders who introduced Africans to Christianity and Islam, respectively.

Nonetheless, it is important that the majority of the people appear to acknowledge the existence of homosexuals in the country. This is crucial as it makes space for a healthy debate. Yet the coverage of the mainstream local media is stifling the debate, deliberately or otherwise. Powerful religious people like Bishop Bvumbwe are never challenged when advancing their theories, flawed or not – as exemplified by the above case.

Sometimes it is the quest for objectivity that stop journalists from challenging their sources. But it does not make you subjective if you ask a source to substantiate their claims. On the contrary, if you fail to question you may inadvertently be endorsing propaganda, especially on contentious issues such as this one. There is no evidence that “gays are abnormal”. It is a myth. No one can substantiate it. Yet the phrase passed unchallenged.

On the contrary, activists like Mwakasungula and Trapence have resorted to paying for a newspaper space in order to make their point. When activists are covered they always have the burden of proof – they must always substantiate their assertions. This does not only narrow the debate, it also legitimises one side of the argument while casting a shadow of doubt on the other.

All animals are equal but some are more equal than others, argued George Orwell. This reflects news values, throughout the world – it is hierarchical. Thus, being a Bishop and a chairperson of influential religious organisation, Bvumbwe is more newsworthy and every word he utters is worth reporting. Yet this does not mean that everything he says has substance. This is particularly crucial in countries like Malawi where there are no alternative media covering minority and vulnerable groups.

In 1993 Malawians chose multiparty democracy against one party rule. Of course this comes with acceptance that the country has people with different views on how things should be done; socially, politically, economically, etc. All these views and ideologies ought to be accommodated without any form of coercion, whether by the state or any institution.

It is either Malawians accept democracy and its values in its entirety or forget about it altogether. While acknowledging that the majority determines a democratic rule, this does not and should not mean extinction of minority and vulnerable groups. These groups ought to be protected. They must be given a fair space and freedom to raise their voices and the media plays a very crucial role in  facilitating that.

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