Are human rights the most effective way of making claims under the conditions of stark socioeconomic inequalities? One of Dr Harri Englund’s recent projects, funded by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC), has explored popular alternatives to human rights talk in African-language radio broadcasting. The radio is – not only still, but increasingly – the main mass medium in many parts of Africa. Broadcasting in Chichewa, a lingua franca in South-Central Africa, reaches millions of people and can mediate claims through idioms and aesthetics that are widely appreciated.
While the emancipatory objectives of some commercial and community radio stations have attracted considerable publicity during the past two decades, less is known about changes within public broadcasting houses in Africa. The continuing bias of many public broadcasters towards ruling parties has been taken by human rights activists and media critics as evidence of stagnant institutional cultures and self-censorship. The nationwide and even international reach of these public broadcasters warrants, however, a closer look at the ways in which programming may have responded to new demands for listener participation and engagement.
This project has focused on the case of Nkhani za m’maboma (News from Districts) on the Malawi Broadcasting Corporation (MBC). This popular programme broadcasts every evening news obtained from its listeners, and its irreverent stories about the effects of poverty, injustice and illegitimate power are at variance with the contents of the MBC’s official news bulletin. Ethnographic fieldwork among listeners and editors has resulted in insights into the ways in which a new public has been generated to debate the abuse of power. A particular interest is to describe how the debates and claims this public sustains represent a different form of liberalism from the one promoted by human rights activists, politicians and aid agencies.
The main findings of this project are due to be published as a book by Indiana University Press in 2011.