Attacks on the Press 2003: Malawi

President Bakili Muluzi’s election in 1999 was hailed as a return to democratic rule after years of dictatorship under Hastings Kamuzu Banda. Muluzi has called himself a friend of the press, but he has proved to be a fair-weather friend. Throughout 2003, journalists in this small, Southern African country endured frequent harassment from government officials and party supporters, which took the form of threats, verbal attacks, and physical violence.

The beginning of 2003 was dominated by Muluzi’s renewed bid to run for an unconstitutional third term in office. A presidential election is scheduled for May 2004. In July 2002, the National Assembly rejected proposals to amend the constitution to allow Muluzi to run. In February 2003, Justice Minister Henry Phoya reintroduced the bill, only to withdraw it when indications showed it would be defeated again. The president’s actions led to protests that drew thousands of Malawians, and journalists covering the demonstrations were endangered by police attempts to control the crowds. One journalist from the privately owned Daily Times was hit in the knee by a rubber bullet.

The debate politicized relations between supporters of Muluzi’s United Democratic Front (UDF) and independent journalists, whom Muluzi supporters accuse of attacking the president by failing to support his campaign to stay in power. In May, a senior reporter for the Daily Times went into hiding after receiving threats for criticizing Muluzi’s bid for a third term. In February, at the peak of tension fueled by the debate, members of the UDF’s youth wing, known as the Young Democrats, attacked newspaper vendors for selling allegedly pro-opposition papers. Local journalists said the attacks were provoked by a Daily Times article with the headline “Sayimanso,” which means “he will not stand again” in Chichewa, a local language.

At a UDF party convention in July, a group of Young Democrats physically assaulted Daniel Nyirenda, a photojournalist for the independent daily The Nation. Nyirenda had been taking pictures of a fight that had broken out among delegates near the entrance gates of the convention hall. The youths beat him and dragged him into the mud. Nyirenda’s colleagues at The Nation said the assailants also broke his digital camera and stole another. Following the attack, Nyirenda spent more than a week in the hospital. According to local journalists, no action had been taken against Nyirenda’s assailants by year’s end.

The attack on Nyirenda provoked widespread condemnation of the Young Democrats by the press and local journalists organizations. The UDF’s response to Nyirenda’s beating drew further criticism. While Muluzi condemned the beating and said “the media should know that I am their friend,” he claimed that “enemies of the ruling party” carried out the assault. After party officials publicly admitted that Nyirenda’s assailants were UDF supporters, a regional governor said at a UDF rally that Nyirenda’s beating was deserved and accused the journalist of being on a spying mission for opposition leader Aleke Banda. The governor also warned The Nation against sending journalists to cover the party’s August convention. Later, Muluzi assured journalists that they would be protected at the convention. The Nation editor Steven Nhlane told CPJ that the newspaper sent reporters to cover the convention despite fears for their safety, but that attendees did not target them.

In one positive development for journalists, in October the High Court awarded 48,000 kwacha (US$455) in damages to McDonald Chapalapata, a Nation journalist assaulted in 2002 by the financial controller of the government’s National Food Reserve Agency. The suit was made possible by a legal aid fund for journalists started by the local chapter of the Media Institute of Southern Africa (MISA).

Throughout 2003, journalists and news outlets endured verbal attacks from Muluzi and party leaders. In June, after reports in the media raised questions about Muluzi’s practice of distributing corn at political rallies–a powerful gesture ahead of elections in a country ridden with hunger–the president lashed out, threatening journalists that “one day I will come to your home and grab you by the collar,” according to MISA.

In addition, the Malawi Communications Regulatory Authority (MACRA) threatened private radio stations that aired critical news coverage. In June, MACRA’s director said that community radio stations were not allowed to broadcast news under Malawi’s 1998 Communications Law. Local observers linked the director’s statements to the fact that community radio stations often air live call-in programs, which allow listeners to criticize government policies. In June, MACRA warned MIJ FM, a radio station at the Malawi Institute of Journalism, which is funded by international and nongovernmental donors, that it risked losing its broadcasting license because of alleged political bias in its reporting. In September, MACRA threatened to close the popular Capital Radio, which is widely respected for its editorial independence, because the station had offered to air live political rallies. After widespread protests in the local media, the threats were quietly dropped.

Religious tensions in the country also played into media relations. In July, journalist Lameck Masina was suspended for a week from his job at Radio Islam, which is run by a an international Islamic charity, for broadcasting an interview with the wives of five alleged al-Qaeda members who Malawi had turned over to U.S. officials at the request of U.S. intelligence officers. Malawi’s minority Muslim population widely criticized the suspects’ transfer to U.S. custody, sparking public protests.

During the interview, the wives said that President Muluzi had apologized to them for their husbands’ arrests. Muluzi, himself a Muslim, had earlier defended turning the men over to U.S. officials, saying that it was in the best interests of the nation. Some local journalists told CPJ that Masina’s suspension came in response to pressure from senior UDF officials. Hub-Eddin Abbakar, the station’s manager, told The Associated Press that the suspension was “an internal issue.”

Politicians continue to use litigation to stifle critical reporting. Office equipment belonging to the privately owned newspaper The Chronicle was confiscated in September after it lost two defamation suits, both lodged by government employees. The court ordered the confiscation after The Chronicle was unable to pay the legal damages awarded in the suits. The paper was able to continue publishing using borrowed equipment but faces up to six more libel cases, including one for criminal defamation, according to Managing Editor Robert Jamieson. Some journalists allege that the suits are part of a government attempt to drive the paper out of business because it is sympathetic to the opposition.