‘Enforcement is not clamping down on media’

Malawi Communications Regulatory Authority has come under fire issuing warnings to revoke of Internet, radio and television licences for some operators who have not paid or owe the regulator licence fees. This week, one of the affected stations, Rainbow Televison shut operations and laid off over 70 people after it license was revoked. Weekend Nation sought the views of Macra communications manager ZAMDZIKO MANKHAMBO on the accusations that they are treating operators unjustly. Excerpts:

Mankhambo: Government lost over K8 billion because of non-payment of licence fees

What is Macra’s justification for the recent action on operators?

Macra as a regulator in the industry is only enforcing regulations that are there. As a regulator, Macra advocates for media freedom and has set the pace by supporting the media and ensuring universal ICT access. Licence obligations are for the entities to operate the business by following set standards and requirements which many adhere to.

Every licensee must adhere to these regulations; hence, this enforcement action should not be perceived in a negative way. Macra cannot forgive or cancel debts unless the law changes as the payment of fees are not only statutory obligations but also licence conditions on entry as well as during the operation of the business. As of now, the Authority is only implementing the laws stipulated in the Communications Act of 2016.

Is this not clamping down on media freedom?

No. You must understand that media freedom and licence obligations are two different things and the upholding of one should not negate the demeaning of the other. Thus, the two should not be confused. Besides the percentage of licensees failing to pay licence obligations is lower than those managing to pay licence fees.

In addition, as we speak, there are many new licensees failing to roll out the provision of their services due to saturation of the frequency band by operators who were assigned the frequencies but not using them. Worse still, there are those that are failing to pay for those licences that they were given.

But the issue of non-payment of licence fees is not new. Why has Macra all-of-a-sudden decided to take action against those who have not paid or have arrears? What has necessitated the move?

Of course, they may have been some laxity by the previous leadership of Macra on enforcement of licence fees payment but, for other licence obligations, we have always been enforcing breaches.

Nonetheless, the previous laxity is not an excuse for adhering to the enforcement of the statutory obligation and ultimately upholding the rule of law which is a fundamental principle enshrined in Sections 12 (v) and (iv) of the Republic of Malawi Constitution. As such, it is time to work in line with set rules and enforce the law.

Is the accumulation of unpaid licence fees an admission by Macra that it has been passive and, therefore, unable to regulate the sector effectively?

There may have been some laxity of enforcement in the past, but that does not mean it should be tolerated. What we are currently doing is following the rules. In fact, all broadcasters were called on the same to induce professionalism in the sector so that as a country, we are at par with our counterparts in the region.

It does not help to let things get out of hand when there is a way to make things right. People out there may perceive Macra as previously passive or too soft which has led to this situation. However, we should not forget that none of the enforcement actions that Macra indulged in is illegal. The Authority is simply acting in accordance with the Communications Act, the Regulations made under the Act and the licence terms and conditions of the respective operators, which essentially that all licensees should adhere to their licence conditions, period.

There have been calls that Macra instead of revoking the licences completely should rather suspend errant broadcasters, would this not be the right thing to do to avoid killing media institutions found on the wrong side of the law?

Like I said earlier on, all Macra is doing is exercising its statutory given mandate to the letter which includes the power to revoke a licence where a fundamental breach thereof, such as non-payment of licence fees and non-provision of the licensed services, has been committed.

Where an operator has applied to have its licence suspended, Macra considers the application on its merits and approves or rejects the same. In the present case, none of the operators under the revoked licences has applied for licence suspension; hence the same cannot be attributed to Macra as a default. 

This, therefore, means Macra is adhering to the rule of law about the Communications Act, which is our governing statutory blueprint.

Going forward, are there no other alternatives that can be explored?

With this kind of non-compliance, the government has been losing a lot of revenue since most of these debts date back to as early as 2016 and the payment being made now have been made after a series of devaluations. This means that the government has lost the value of the withheld payments.

Of late, the licensees have defaulted causing the government to lose revenue of over K8 billion. The amount has been reducing since we took the initiative to enforce the law. The taxes allegedly being lost are instead only recoverable where one is trading and not where they are not profiteering.

In addition, even if lost, the same can be recovered through the new licensees who will roll out after the withdrawal of the frequencies. We are also easing their burden since if they are failing to pay licence fees, there is a very remote likelihood of managing to pay statutory fees such as taxes.

Finally, how is Macra engaging its licensees to ensure they comply with their licence obligations to avoid similar scenarios in the future?

Macra has an open-door policy where operators can come anytime to discuss any issue pertaining to their business.

We have also established a toll-free line, 261 to hear and resolve any queries from the consumers on services offered by operators and make the public understand the licensing processes and cost implications. This enables us to stay in tune with both the operators and consumers.

Early in the month, on the 8th, 10th, and 12th of August 2022, we had Macra open days in all three regions, where we engaged directly with both existing and prospective operators and consumers. During the open days, Macra ptalked about the licensing processes and cost implications associated with obtaining a licence and running the business of information and communications technology in Malawi.

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