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Thursday, 16 December, 1999, 15:05 GMT
Net profits for African journalists

E-mail has revolutionised Raphael's working day

By Raphael Tenthani in Blantyre

An average day for me and other freelance journalists in the impoverished southern African state of Malawi has changed beyond all recognition in recent years.

With the advent of the internet, it is now a case of so much to write, so little time.

The people who stay longest on our computers are journalists
Blantyre cyber-café worker Esther Mzembe
"Hello? Hello ..?" That's AP's Harare office saying New York is looking for 300 words on a journalist who has just died after declaring his HIV status.

And then the BBC in London, wondering whether I could file a despatch on the president's lavish wedding for this evening's Focus On Africa programme.

And here is Hamburg. How can the German Press Agency use my pieces without creating an English website? Their Deutschmarks are sweet though.

And the Pan-African News Agency, as usual, wondering why I did not contribute to this week's economic bulletin. That means there was no news, Mr Editor, Sir!

The bad old days

Before the arrival of the Internet a freelance journalist was as good as jobless.

Nobody could work as a freelancer and hope to eke out a comfortable living: paying rent, buying food and some socialising.

It was not that journalists in Malawi lacked flair in their writing.

But hawking stuff abroad could cost an arm and a leg. At that time the only mode of communication was via phones or faxes - and that could really be expensive.

Imagine sending volumes of words anywhere in the world for less than 50 cents.
MalawiNet's Bassie Saidi
Phoning for three minutes or faxing a page within the region could set you back $3, while internationally you would part with more than $9. And selling a story can take longer than three minutes.

These figures may seem negligible to journalists in the West but in a country like Malawi it is quite a small fortune.

But now those woes are history.

E-mail popular

Bessie Saidi, chief executive of MalawiNet, Malawi's established Internet Service Provider (ISP) says: "With e-mail, sending text anywhere in the world has been reduced to almost nothing."

But Malawi is still in its development throes. With over 65% of the country's more than 10m inhabitants illiterate and more than that percentage living well below the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP)-designated poverty line, government has priorities other than developing such a novel, if not elitist, phenomenon like the internet.

So usage of the so-called Information superhighway is limited here.

Mrs Saidi talks of a serious clientele in the region of 3,000.

And Esther Mzembe of the Communication Centre - one of the cyber-cafés that have sprouted up in Blantyre - says that apart from tourists and a few other Malawians, the people who frequent her café are mainly journalists.

She adds that people who use her services mainly just do e-mail with very little browsing.

However there are still problems.

Telephone headaches

Veteran Malawian journalist Felix Mponda, who now strings for the French News agency (AFP), says that although the internet is comparatively cheap he is still nostalgic for the good old days of the telex machine.

"With the telex you could actually chat with the editor there and then but with e-mail, if something goes wrong during transmission, you can't know it immediately and you get a query on why you did not file," he says.

Malawi's still under-developed telephone system is another factor. Mrs Saidi says the country's shoddy telephone system makes logging on to the internet a headache.

"Malawi is still using analogue types of phones while we (MalawiNet) are using digital so for the system to configure from the analogue to the digital it kind of slows down connectivity," she says.

Phone line allocation is another problem. According to Mike Makawa, Malawi's Postmaster General, Malawi needs about 300,000 lines but MPTC can only provide 65,000 lines and of these only 36,000 lines are in use.

He adds it would be expensive to overhaul the whole system from analogue to digital. All the same, the state-run corporation has contracted out the Swedish telecommunications firm Ericsson to upgrade the system. But the work can take a long time.

Spreading the net

But despite all these mishaps the internet is a growing phenomenon in Malawi. More and more enlightened young people nowadays prefer communication via e-mail to sending letters by post.

And, as for freelance journalists in Malawi, nowadays the internet is an essential tool.

The phone rings again. The chap at AP's Harare office wants the age of this scribe who died of Aids and a paragraph about his private life.

"I will put it on e-mail just now," I tell him.

A few years ago I would have to forego at least a week's lunch just to be able to tell him "I will fax you just now."

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