Attacks on the Press 2002: Malawi

During 2002, the beleaguered Malawian press endured threats and verbal attacks from President Bakili Muluzi and his ruling United Democratic Front (UDF), as well as physical abuse from party supporters, while local media outlets struggled to maintain editorial independence in the face of mounting financial difficulties.

The ruling party’s ongoing attempt to amend the constitution to allow Muluzi to run for a third term has exacerbated antagonism between the government and the independent press. Though the UDF lost an early-July parliamentary vote to extend the president’s term limit, the government reintroduced a third-term bill in the fall, drawing local and international criticism that the ruling party is preoccupied with retaining power instead of solving the country’s social and economic ills.

In late May, several thousand UDF supporters besieged the offices of Blantyre Newspapers, publisher of the private Daily Times and the weekly Malawi News, to
protest the papers’ stances against the third-term bill. The crowd beat one journalist who attempted to record the license numbers of the vehicles that had ferried UDF partisans to the offices. The demonstration ended when Presidential Affairs Minister Dumbo Lemani ordered the protesters to disperse following a meeting with the newspapers’ executive chair.

Also in late May, Muluzi banned all public demonstrations related to the third-term bill. But civil-society groups contended that since the government controls the country’s most influential media–including the state-owned Malawi Broadcasting Corporation’s two radio stations and the country’s only domestic television station–anti-third-term campaigners had no choice but to demonstrate. According to local journalists, increased pressure from international donors later in 2002 forced the government to allow greater debate in state-controlled media, including opposition views, on the third-term issue.

During the last few years, Malawi’s media have begun dividing along political lines. While opposition voices in the independent press have criticized the government for corruption and attempts to strengthen its rule, the UDF has increasingly used state and private media to promote its agenda. Several private publications, which local journalists say various UDF politicians bankroll, have emerged to attack the independent media. This so-called yellow gutter press, including The Sun, The Malawi Standard, and Malawi Insider, castigates anyone who criticizes UDF policy.

In October, the Malawi Insider and The Malawi Standard accused the National Media Institute of Southern Africa (NAMISA), a media rights group, of launching a war against media institutions and journalists for reporting that the proliferation of UDF-sponsored publications was part of the ruling party’s attempt to promote Muluzi’s third-term bid. According to Malawi Insider, The Malawi Standard said that NAMISA was engaged in character assassination, corruption, tribalism, and partisan politics.

Media-rights advocates say that because independent journalists often live in poverty, many of them have been lured to politicians’ publications with better pay and then write whatever their patrons bid.

Religious differences–with Christian groups generally opposing the extension of Muluzi’s tenure and many Muslims, a minority in the country, supporting a third term for the Muslim president–also play into media divisions, according to observers. In September, the Catholic Church complained to the Malawi Communications Regulatory Authority after Radio Islam aired programs during which callers criticized church policies. The church described the programs as “provocative and insulting,” while church supporters urged it to use its Radio Maria broadcaster to retaliate.

UDF Young Democrats physically attacked several journalists in 2002. In February, a group of Young Democrats abducted Mallick Mnela, of the independent weekly The Chronicle, and assaulted other Chronicle journalists after the paper published articles about infighting in the UDF.

Politicians continued to use litigation to stifle reporting on corruption. In early spring, Presidential Affairs Minister Lemani sued The Chronicle for damages after the paper quoted an opposition politician who alleged that the government’s Anti-Corruption Bureau was failing to prosecute UDF leaders. It was the fifth lawsuit filed against The Chronicle in the last two years, in what journalists believe is a campaign to bankrupt the paper.

In a positive development, NAMISA launched a legal defense fund in October to support journalists and media organizations facing litigation.

February 22

Mallick Mnela, The Chronicle
Rob Jamieson, The Chronicle
Quinton Jamieson, The Chronicle
Joseph Ganthu, The Chronicle
Kambani Bana, The Chronicle

Offices of the independent weekly The Chronicle were attacked by members of the Young Democrats, a youth organization that supports President Bakili Muluzi’s ruling United Democratic Front (UDF) party. The members threatened to destroy the office unless staffers handed Mnela, a junior reporter for the paper, over to them. When Mnela voluntarily came forward, the assailants bundled him into their car and left.

Reporters Quinton Jamieson and Ganthu followed them until the youth group’s car stalled on the road. The reporters contacted the police, who forced the assailants to go to the nearby regional police station. Once there, police stood by as the youth group’s regional director, Shaban Kadango, interrogated Mnela.

The Chronicle editor-in-chief Rob Jamieson arrived at the station with reporter Banda while the Young Democrats continued to harass Mnela. When the young cadres noticed that Banda was carrying a digital camera, they attacked him and stole the camera. Rob Jamieson, Quinton Jamieson, and Ganthu tried to intervene, but the Young Democrats began assaulting them as well. Police eventually broke up the melee and told all participants to go to the nearby Lilongwe police station to lodge their complaints. Mnela was then freed.

The Chronicle staff told CPJ they do not believe that the police, who are known to be sympathetic to the Young Democrats, will investigate the incident further.

Other sources at The Chronicle reported that the abduction most likely came in reprisal for two recent articles that Mnela had written alleging that the Young Democrats had split into two factions, one supporting UDF central region governor Uladi Mussa, and the other supporting former deputy minister Iqbal Omar. Less than a month before Mnela’s abduction, clashes between the two rival factions led to several arrests.

Earlier in the week, members of the Young Democrats had attacked Mnela. The party’s regional director Kadango explained to police that the scuffle related to a personal dispute between Mnela and one of the assailants over his girlfriend, but sources at The Chronicle dismissed Kadango’s explanation as inaccurate and noted that during the attacks on their office, the assailants explicitly mentioned the paper’s critical reporting on the UDF.

August 21

Bright Sonani, Malawi News

Sonani, a senior reporter for the private Malawi News, was assaulted by three unidentified men, who accused the journalist of criticizing the government in his stories. The attackers knocked the journalist to the ground, beat him, and took his cell phone before fleeing. Local sources said that the journalist had recently written several critical stories that might have angered supporters of President Bakili Muluzi and the ruling United Democratic Front.