Attacks on the Press 2001: Malawi

Officials and ruling party supporters intensified a campaign of intimidation against critical voices in Malawi following revelations of widespread government corruption and amid growing speculation that President Bakili Muluzi would run for an unconstitutional third term in office.

Members of opposition parties are often denied coverage in the state media, which is almost entirely controlled by the ruling United Democratic Front (UDF). In March, the local chapter of the Media Institute of Southern African (MISA) criticized the overwhelming pro-UDF bias in the state-owned media, saying it set a poor standard for Malawian journalism in general.

Authorities used every means at their disposal to silence media outlets that reported unfavorably on the UDF or that covered public scandals. Police frequently arrested journalists on specious charges. In early February, six reporters for the independent Daily Times were arrested and charged with “publishing false news likely to cause public alarm” after they reported on a series of killings in the southern district of Chiradzulu. Martines Namingah, editor of the independent Dispatch, and Kalera Mhango, the newspaper’s printer, were arrested on similar charges in late May following a series of articles about corruption and power struggles within the UDF.

Deputy Inspector General of Police Joseph Aironi admitted that the Dispatch articles had not in fact caused any unrest but claimed they had the potential to do so, according to The Associated Press. Aironi added that Malawi’s constitutional press freedom guarantees did not protect offending journalists.

In early January, following news reports alleging that former finance minister Cassim Chilumpha had been involved in corrupt activities before President Muluzi dismissed him from the Cabinet in 2000, Chilumpha obtained an injunction restraining the press from implying that he was corrupt. When Daily Times journalists reported that the former minister had been given a chance to defend himself in front of parliament, Chilumpha tried to get them jailed for contempt of court.

In September, Chilumpha became chairman of the board of directors of Blantyre Printing and Publishing Company, which owns the Daily Times. Chilumpha’s appointment followed the installation of a pro-UDF board at the company. Local journalists believe that the sacking of Daily Times editor Mike Kamwendo in early December was motivated by the new board’s distaste for the paper’s aggressive coverage of government affairs.

Officials also tried to silence critical news organizations by draining their economic resources. The independent, Lilongwe-based Chronicle newspaper was forced to contend with several pending libel suits last year, all of them filed in 2000 by President Muluzi, government ministers, and the Reserve Bank of Malawi. The Chronicle staff believes that the plaintiffs will not actually go to court, and that their true intention is to bankrupt the paper with legal costs.

Malawian authorities also targeted printers for harassment. In December, Design Printers refused to print an edition of The Chronicle that contained an article about the death in police custody of local reggae star and government critic Evison Matafale. Design Printers administrative manager Billy Chimimba, said that because Malawian law did not protect printers of controversial material, he decided he could not afford to print The Chronicle.

Malawian journalists faced numerous threats and physical attacks from ruling party supporters last year, especially from the youth group that calls itself the “Young Democrats.” There was a concentration of such attacks around the time of the Southern African Development Community (SADC) summit in Blantyre in August. African Eye News Service correspondent Brian Ligomeka and People’s Eye editor Chinyeke Tembo were both assaulted by UDF supporters around the time of the summit because they had published critical articles about Malawi’s political climate. John Saini, publisher of the independent magazine Pride, received death threats while covering the SADC conference because of his paper’s unfavorable reporting on the government.

Vendors who sold copies of newspapers that were critical of the government were frequently harassed; on several occasions, UDF supporters attacked the vendors or burned copies of their newspapers. There were also reports of opposition party supporters attacking journalists in response to media criticism.

Though President Muluzi was elected the new chairman of SADC at the conference, he was silent regarding these attacks on the press. The Panafrican News Agency reported that during a political rally in September, Muluzi was outspoken about what he described as Malawi’s improved press freedom record, saying that journalists were free to write whatever they wanted. But just a month earlier, Muluzi berated “biased” news organizations in a speech, claiming they did not deserve to exist because they were “out to distort and frame the presidents and their governments in all sorts of negative aspects.”

February 12

Mike Kamwendo, Daily Times
Wallace Mposa, Daily Times
Limbani Moya, Daily Times
Mabvuto Banda, Daily Times
MacDonald Chapalapata, Daily Times
Peter Makossah, Daily Times

Six journalists from the independent Daily Times were arrested by police in the town of Blantyre after the newspaper reported on serial murders in the southern district of Chiradzulu. The six detainees included editors Kamwendo and Mposa and reporters Moya, Banda, Chapalapata, and Makossah.

The article, which was written by Makossah, quoted a traditional chief who linked the recent killings of eight men to the serial killings of eight women during a three-month period in 2000. The chief said that the manner in which the eight men died resembled the earlier murders, for which two men had already been sentenced to death.

The journalists were held for several hours and then released. Mposa, Moya, and Chapalapata were issued warnings, while Kamwendo, Banda, and Makossah were charged with publishing false news. According to The Nation newspaper, Police Commissioner Milward Chikwamba said the journalists were arrested because the story was false and the work of alarmists.

On March 22, President Bakili Muluzi ordered police to drop all charges against the three journalists.

May 25

Kalera Mhango, Karora Printers and Publishing House
Martines Namingah, Dispatch

Namingah, the editor of the independent Dispatch, and Mhango, owner of Karora Printers and Publishing House, the paper’s printer, were charged with “publishing false information likely to cause public fear and alarm” in connection with a series of articles about President Bakili Muluzi that appeared in Dispatch on May 23.

The first article alleged that President Muluzi feared the opposition party would impeach him during the June parliamentary session. Another story, quoting former transport minister Brown Mpinganjira, insinuated that the president was the most corrupt person in the country. The third story outlined charges that the National Intelligence Bureau was spying on members of parliament from the ruling United Democratic Front party who were suspected of sympathizing with an opposition group.

After a police search, Mhango and Namingah surrendered to officers on May 25 and 26, respectively. They were released on bail after a brief court appearance on May 26.

The police said they would call the journalists to court again “when the state was ready.” As this book went to press, the journalists had not been summoned, although the charges had not been formally dropped.

In a related development, police arrested four vendors on May 25 for selling copies of Dispatch. They were released on a 5,000 kwacha (US$66.78) bail a few days later but were not formally charged.

August 12

Brian Ligomeka, Africa Eye News Service

Ligomeka, correspondent for the South Africa-based Africa Eye News Service and an editor at the Malawian weekly Mirror newspaper, was attacked by seven men at Chileka airport in Blantyre, where he was covering the arrival of the Angolan delegation to a Southern African Development Community (SADC) heads-of-state meeting.

The Mirror is published by former cabinet minister Brown Mpinganjira, who is now a vocal member of the opposition.

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, where they beat him up. The ringleader, who identified himself as “Sam Zimba,” accused Ligomeka of bad-mouthing Malawian president Bakili Muluzi and Zimbabwean president Robert Mugabe. “You have been embarrassing us,” Zimba said. “We’ve been looking for you for a long time.”

Zimba’s badge designated him as an accredited SADC “official.” Ligomeka said he recognized Zimba as a member of the ruling party’s youth cadre, commonly referred to as “the untouchables.”

According to Ligomeka, Zimba was previously accused of burning a car belonging to a member of the opposition.

A policeman witnessed the beatings and drove Ligomeka to the Chileka airport police station, where he was held in “safe custody.”

The police instructed him to return on Monday to record a statement and file a complaint. When he returned, one police officer recorded the statement but the senior officer refused to approve it, saying the police needed to investigate the matter first.

Later that day, Ligomeka received three anonymous phone calls from individuals who said they weren’t through with him yet.

September 1

The Chronicle
Robert Jamieson, The Chronicle
Christopher Jimu, The Chronicle

During the first week of September, the Leasing and Finance Company of Malawi (LFC), one of the country’s major finance companies, filed a criminal defamation suit against Robert Jamieson and Christopher Jimu, respectively editor-in-chief and reporter for the independent, Lilongwe-based Chronicle.

The suit stemmed from an article and editorial comment published in the May 28-June 3, 2001 edition of The Chronicle. The article, titled “Criminal Probe on LFC Possible,” reported that the director of public prosecution (DPP) had launched a criminal investigation against the LFC, which was alleged to have illegally appropriated ownership documents for a private vehicle.

The editorial, titled “Integrity,” urged the DPP to conduct a rigorous investigation.

On September 18, both journalists entered a not-guilty plea. Their case was still pending at year’s end.

Defamation is still a criminal offense in Malawi and carries a maximum prison sentence of three years. Complainants can also choose to file a civil defamation suit and seek monetary damages.

The Chronicle is currently facing a number of civil defamation suits in addition to the LFC criminal suit. These suits have been filed by President Bakili Muluzi, several Cabinet ministers, and other government officials acting in their private capacity, as well as by the Reserve Bank of Malawi. Chronicle staff believe that the complainants do not intend to follow through on their lawsuits, and that their actual intention is to try to bankrupt the paper with legal costs.

September 2

Chinyeke Tembo, People’s Eye

Tembo, editor of the anti-government weekly newspaper People’s Eye, based in Blantyre, was pulled out of a minibus and beaten by a group of government supporters. Police later charged the journalist with publishing false news.

Tembo was traveling in a public bus toward Limbe, Blantyre’s business district, when a group of ruling United Democratic Front (UDF) party supporters accused him of writing anti-UDF propaganda and began to manhandle him. The bus driver was forced to stop, whereupon the assailants dragged the journalist off the bus and started beating him in the road.

Paramilitary police officers intervened and took the journalist to police headquarters. The UDF supporters followed the officers to the station, where the attackers claimed that they had assaulted Tembo for writing false news about President Muluzi and the UDF government. Instead of investigating the assault, the police then started interrogating Tembo about his newspaper, local sources said.

Police then charged Tembo with “publishing false news likely to cause alarm.” According to sources in Malawi, the charges came in response to the August 13 special edition of People’s Eye, which contained a critical appraisal of Malawi’s political climate.

Tembo intended the publication to reach African leaders who were attending the Southern African Development Community Summit that began on August 12 in Blantyre. When the special edition was published, ruling-party youth confiscated and burned copies of it and attacked news vendors selling it.

Tembo was held for four hours before Blantyre civil rights lawyer Viva Nyimba managed to bail him out. The journalist suffered minor injuries from the attack. By year’s end, Tembo had not been indicted; sources in Malawi said it was unlikely that police would follow through on the charges.

People’s Eye is known for criticizing the ruling UDF. The paper has strong links to the National Democratic Alliance, an opposition group headed by Brown Mpinganira, a former UDF minister of public works and transport.

December 10

The Chronicle

The latest edition of the independent, Lilongwe-based Chronicle did not appear on newsstands because the paper’s printer, Design Printers, refused to print the issue.

Chronicle editor Rob Jamieson told CPJ that Design objected to an article about the controversy surrounding the death of Malawian reggae star and outspoken government critic Evison Matafale, who died in police custody after he was picked up for allegedly writing a seditious letter to President Bakili Muluzi.

Design apparently said it would only print the current issue of The Chronicle if Jamieson replaced the offending article.

Design Printers administrative manager Billy Chimimba told the Media Institute of Southern Africa that the company reserved the right to refuse to print its clients’ materials. Chimimba added that Malawi’s laws do not protect them if they print controversial materials, and that printers have been arrested for doing so.

The Chronicle then suspended publication while it looked for an alternate printer.

December 20

Thomas Chafunya, Daily Times
Lazarus Nedi, Daily Times

Senior business reporter Chifunya, and photographer Nedi, of the independent Daily Times, were harassed while trying to cover violent clashes between police and vendors on the streets of Limbe, just outside Blantyre.

On December 20, the street vendors broke an agreement with the Blantyre City Assembly to operate in designated areas only, deciding instead to sell their wares in the more lucrative main city streets. Police arrived on the scene and attempted to remove the vendors, who put up a fight.

Junior police officers detained Chifunya and Nedi at the scene while the two were covering the clashes, saying that the journalists did not have permission to report on the event. The police then demanded that the journalists hand over the diskettes from the digital camera they had used to photograph the confrontation.

When the journalists refused, the angry police officers took them to a senior officer nearby for questioning. Though the senior officer allowed the journalists to go, he cautioned them against continuing their coverage of the clashes. The junior officers continued to harass the journalists, demanding they surrender their camera, for 15 minutes before finally allowing them to leave.