Attacks on the Press 1999: Malawi

In April, President Bakili Muluzi declared that his party, the United Democratic Front (UDF), believed in “the tenets of constitutional democracy,” including press freedom. The political reality has failed to live up to this rhetoric. After the June 15 general elections gave Muluzi a second five-year term in office, the opposition contended that the elections were rigged. In the ensuing protests and demonstrations, several people were killed by riot police firing live ammunition.

These events had repercussions for local journalism. In June, Horace Somanje and Mabvuto Banda of the independent weekly Malawi News were arrested after they published an article quoting embittered opposition supporters, who were so unhappy with the election results that they called on the armed forces to take over the country. According to Somanje, the police admitted they had no case against him and his colleague but were simply carrying out instructions from the government.

On June 21, two unidentified men confiscated a camera and film from a photographer who was taking pictures of President Muluzi’s swearing-in ceremony. Another photographer was briefly detained for questioning by a police officer after he photographed police taking Somanje and Banda to the magistrate’s court.

The June dismissal of four employees at the state-owned Malawi Broadcasting Corporation (MBC) also seemed politically motivated. “A mere negative joke about the ruling party can cost someone a job here,” one MBC source told the independent Daily Times.

May 22
Pilirani Kachinziri, Daily Times ATTACKED

Sports reporter Kachinziri of the independent Daily Times newspaper was attacked by a fan of the Telcom Wanderers football team. The fan accused him of negative reporting about Wanderers official Jack Kamwendo and Malawian national team coach Jack Chamangwana. Although the assailant was armed with a bottle, Kachinziri suffered no serious injury. Police officers present at the scene arrested the man.

June 21
Horace Somanje, Malawi News IMPRISONED
Mabvuto Banda, Malawi News IMPRISONED

Police arrested Somanje, editor of the independent weekly Malawi News, and Banda, a reporter for the same paper, in connection with a June 19 article quoting embittered opposition supporters who called on the armed forces to take over the country.

The report, whose main focus was a June 18 rally in support of a court action challenging the outcome of recent general elections, quoted opposition members who accused President Muluzi and his United Democratic Front of falsifying the results of the vote.

The Blantyre magistrate’s court charged Somanje and Banda with conspiracy to endanger national security. The two journalists were granted bail of 5,000 kwachas each (US$100) and bound to two sureties of 10,000 kwachas (US$200) each. Somanje’s and Banda’s travel documents were confiscated, and the two journalists were instructed to report twice a week to the police in Blantyre.

In early July, the Malawi High Court suspended criminal investigation into the case, pending a judicial review for which no date was set. Meanwhile, Somanje and Banda were no longer required to report to the police.

June 25
Patrick Mphaka, Malawi Broadcasting Corporation HARASSED
Jeffrey Msampha, Malawi Broadcasting Corporation HARASSED
Thom Chisuse, Malawi Broadcasting Corporation HARASSED
Rusk Mkwapatira, Malawi Broadcasting Corporation HARASSED

Announcer Chisuse and program producers Mphaka, Msampha, and Mkwapatira were dismissed from their jobs at the state-owned Malawi Broadcasting Corporation (MBC). The four letters of dismissal were signed on behalf of MBC’s acting director general by Owen Maunde, director of corporate affairs.

The letters cited the corporation’s Staff Regulation 29(a), which enables “the Corporation to terminate the service of an officer or employee for any reason which appears to be expedient to the Corporation.”

While the MBC management did not cite specifics, press and trade-union sources in Malawi contend that the four men were dismissed because they were said to support the opposition.