Letters   |   South Africa

CPJ concerned about deterioration of press freedom conditions in SADC region

October 12, 2001

His Excellency Bakili Muluzi
Chairman
Southern African Development Community (SADC)
SADC Headquarters
Gaborone, Botswana Via Facsimile: +267 372 848

Your Excellency:

The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) is gravely concerned about the deterioration of press freedom in several SADC member states, including your own country, Malawi. Our research reveals an alarming pattern of harassment and intimidation of independent journalists, severe censorship, and the use of repressive laws to silence those perceived to oppose ruling parties and governments.

According to SADC's mission statement, the organization was started to "enhance the standard and quality of life of the peoples of southern Africa," to promote an "inter-dependence of member states," and to "evolve common political values, systems and institutions." As SADC chairman, we trust Your Excellency will agree that the following incidents, both in Malawi and other member states, do not uphold the spirit of this declaration.

In Malawi, Brian Ligomeka, a correspondent for the Africa Eye News Service and editor of the weekly Mirror newspaper, was assaulted by seven men on August 12 at Chileka airport in Blantyre while awaiting the arrival of an Angolan delegation SADC heads-of-state meeting.

The men, who all wore badges accrediting them to the SADC, surrounded Ligomeka on the runway and dragged him into some bushes near the parking lot. They beat him while the leader told Ligomeka, "You have been writing negative things about Muluzi, when you went to Zimbabwe you wrote things about Mugabe. You have been embarrassing us. We've been looking for you for a long time."

The leader's SADC badge identified him as "Sam Zimba." Ligomeka says he recognized him as a member of the ruling party's youth cadres, commonly referred to as "the untouchables."

A police officer witnessed the beatings and drove Ligomeka to the Chileka airport police station, where Ligomeka was held in "safe custody" for three hours. The police instructed him to return the following Monday to record a statement and file a complaint. When he returned, one police officer recorded the statement, but the senior officer refused to endorse it, saying the police needed to investigate the matter first.

Later the same day, Ligomeka received three anonymous phone calls from people who said they "weren't through with [him] yet." He later went into hiding.

In Tanzania, hitherto known for its relatively open press environment, CPJ has recorded increasing government interference with journalists' work. The most recent incident occurred on August 30, when nine journalists were arrested in the Tarime District in northern Tanzania. Tarime has been the site of clashes between the Waanchari and Walyanchoka clans of the Kuria ethnic group.
According to local reporters, police arrested the journalists for entering a restricted area on their way to the village of Kubiterere. Local sources told CPJ that the arrests were ordered by a local official who had declared the area off-limits because of the fighting. The journalists were held for five hours before being released and the police confiscated some of their equipment.

The nine journalists included George Marato and Hamad Kitumbo from the Independent Television Network, Athumani Hamisi and Saidi Msonda from the Kiswahili-language newspaper Nipashe, Cassian Malima from the Kiswahili-language newspaper Mtanzania, Florian Kaijage and Hussein Iddi of Dar-es-Salaam Television, and Deus Ngowi and Samson Chacha from the Kiswahili-language newspaper Mwananchi.

Three other journalists were arrested in Tarime on August 22. Richard Mgamba of the East African, Eric Nampesya of the British Broadcasting Corporation, and Dismas Ayuke of the Kiswahili-language newspaper Majira were arrested, also on the orders of a local official, Tanzanian journalists told CPJ. The journalists were charged with "entering a restricted area" and held for two days.

On July 24, meanwhile, the Tanzanian government banned nine Kiswahili-language weeklies and suspended three tabloid newspapers for their alleged "pornographic content." The minister of state for information and policy, Omar Ramadhan Mapuri, was quoted in the July 27 edition of the Dar-es-Salam Guardian as saying that the publications were punished for thwarting Tanzania's HIV-AIDS alleviation program by publishing text and photographs that were "contrary to national ethics and encourage[d] promiscuous behavior."

Mapuri said that although the government remained committed to press freedom, he would not hesitate to ban or suspend publications that violate rules and regulations pertaining to public safety or the national interest.

Conditions have also deteriorated in Zambia, especially for journalists who criticize President Frederick Chiluba. On July 25, Bivan Saluseki, a reporter at the independent daily newspaper The Post, was charged with defaming the president in a July 16 story titled, "Chiluba is a thief, charges Nawakwi." The story quoted opposition politician and former minister of labor Edith Nawakwi as saying that "the president allowed ministers to steal and then shared with them."

Police summoned Saluseki, held him for three hours and accused him of "defaming the president." On July 19, police visited The Post offices to ask Saluseki, deputy news editor Amos Malupenga, and editor Fred M'membe to report to the police station to answer charges of defaming the president. M'membe refused to cooperate, while Malupenga recorded a statement.

Under Zambian law, a conviction on charges of defaming the president carries a penalty of up to three years in prison. On August 22, Saluseki, Nawakwi, and M'membe were formally charged with defamation. All three pleaded not guilty; their case is pending.

On August 21, M'membe was arrested and charged with criminal defamation of the head of state, an offense under Article 69 of Zambia's Penal Code. The charges stem from an article and an editorial in the August 17 edition of The Post. Both alleged President Chiluba's involvement in a US$4 million graft scheme.

Police arrested and charged M'membe when he arrived at the Lusaka Central Police Station in response to a summons that his lawyer, Mutembo N'Chito, received the previous day.

On August 19, the Ministry of Information shut down Radio Phoenix, Zambia's only private, non-church-owned radio station, for allegedly failing to pay its broadcasting license fee. The station has been an outspoken critic of President Chiluba's government.

Information Minister Vernon Mwaanga said that the station's broadcast license was suspended immediately after it failed to renew its operating license. According to the Media Institute of Southern Africa, Mwaanga told Radio Phoenix that the government considered the station's failure to renew its licenses a "serious matter." He said the situation would only be reviewed after Phoenix paid the required fees and allowed a team from the ministry to inspect the station.

According to CPJ sources in Zambia, however, the Information Ministry has shown little interest either in disclosing the amount Radio Phoenix owes or in accepting payment from the station. Since the closure, station manager Elizabeth Pemba has received several threatening anonymous phone calls, MISA reports, with one caller warning her to "stop being cheeky." Radio Phoenix's license was finally restored on September 18, almost a month after it was forced off the air.

Zimbabwe, by far the worst violator of press freedoms in the region, continues to be an area of grave concern to CPJ. Self-proclaimed war veterans attack government critics with impunity; journalists who criticize the government are harassed, imprisoned, deported, or denied work authorization; and repressive laws are applied to quell dissent.

We respectfully remind Your Excellency that the Southern African Development Community ratified the SADC Information Protocol on May 30, 2001. Article 17 of the protocol commits member states to "cooperate and collaborate in the promotion, establishment and growth of all forms of media for the free flow of information, the strengthening of public information institutions to be effective gatherers and disseminators of information and news."

As chairman of SADC, we hope Your Excellency will set an example for other member states by addressing press freedom concerns in Malawi. No journalist should ever receive the treatment meted out to Brian Ligomeka, who was brutally beaten for simply doing his professional duty. We urge you not only to address this case, but also to speak out publicly about press freedom violations in other SADC member states.

Thank you for your attention to these important matters. We look forward to your reply.


Sincerely,

Ann K. Cooper
Executive Director
 
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