New York, February 1, 2011–An amendment to Malawi’s penal code, which became law last week, allows the government to ban any publication deemed contrary to public interest for an unspecified period of time, institutionalizing political censorship of the press, the Committee to Protect Journalists said today.
On January 26, President Bingu wa Mutharika signed into law an amendment to Section 46 of the penal code that gives the information minister unchecked discretion to block a publication he or she deems against the “public interest,” according to news reports and the Media Institute of Southern Africa (MISA). Previously, Section 46 only prohibited importation of publications considered seditious.
MISA’s local chairman, Anthony Kasunda, told CPJ the new law contradicts the constitution, which allows the press to report and publish freely and have access to public information. MISA plans to challenge the constitutionality of the law, he said.
“The ability of a single political appointee to decide what newspapers, local or foreign, citizens read is against the public interest and is an assault on Malawi’s constitutional guarantee of press freedom,” said CPJ East Africa Consultant Tom Rhodes. “We call on parliament to repeal this arbitrary legislation immediately.”
MISA had unsuccessfully petitioned Mutharika in November 2010 to send the bill back to parliament for further consultation, according to local reports. Local journalists said the government never consulted the media over the bill.
The government has a history of shuttering critical news outlets at politically sensitive periods and arresting journalists for political coverage, according to CPJ research. The new law follows threats by Mutharika to close down newspapers that criticize his administration. Authorities attempted to ban the tabloid Weekend Times in November for the paper’s failure to register with the country’s national archives, a violation that local journalists charged was a pretext to ban the publication for its frequent stories exposing fraud and sex scandals of public figures. The newspaper’s publishers, Blantyre Print & Packaging, applied for and received a stay order from the courts that restrained the government from implementing its decision, according to local reports.