Malawi journalists detained during presidential election

New York, May 19, 2009–Authorities in Malawi should immediately release three journalists arrested today in a police raid on an opposition radio station, the Committee to Protect Journalists said. The country is holding general elections between today and Thursday.

The 4 a.m. raid targeted Joy Radio, a station owned by former president and opposition leader Bakili Muluzi, in the commercial city of Blantyre. According to the Media Institute of Southern Africa, journalists from the station were picked up in relation to the rebroadcast of a 2008 political program contradicting government claims that the country’s food supply was secure.

During the raid, police took into custody presenters Aubrey Nazombe and Mary Chande Mhone, and technician Abdul Razak Telela, on accusations of broadcasting campaign material, according to Joy Radio lawyer Ralph Kasambara. The three are being held at Blantyre police station but have not been formally charged, he said. Meanwhile, police have forbidden the station from airing news coverage, according to the Media Institute. National National Police spokesman Willie Mwaluka did not return CPJ’s calls for comment.

“We condemn the silencing of Joy Radio and effective ban on its election coverage imposed by police,” said CPJ Africa Program Coordinator Tom Rhodes. “The three employees should be released immediately and the station allowed to resume news broadcasting.”

Joy Radio has been the target of harassment for its political coverage in recent years, according to CPJ research. The station has been involved in a protracted court battle with the government-controlled Malawi Communications Regulatory Authority over its license. It has also been the target of intimidation and censorship.

President Bingu Wa Mutharika, widely credited with improving the poor, landlocked nation’s  food security and leading one of the world’s fast-growing economies, is seeking a second five-year term, according to international news reports.