Medical staff and police officers are seen in Blantyre, Malawi, on May 6, 2020. Two journalists recently received threats over their coronvirus commentary. (AFP/Amos Gumulira)

Malawi journalists threatened over commentary on education policies amid COVID-19

Beginning on August 18, 2020, unidentified social media users in Malawi have threatened journalists Stevie Kondwa Banda and George Kasakula over their commentary on the coronavirus pandemic, according to the journalists, who spoke to CPJ via messaging app.

On August 18, Facebook and WhatsApp users began sending messages to Banda, a reporter for the privately owned Mibawa Television broadcaster, calling him an “enemy of teachers” and threatening to “deal with” his six-year-old daughter when she returned to school, he told CPJ.

The messages followed an August 18 broadcast of Banda’s “Gwedegwede” (“To Shake”) current affairs show, in which he said that teachers should not receive the type of special allowances provided to medical practitioners amid the pandemic, Banda told CPJ.

Chawezi Banda, a deputy production manager at Mibawa Television, who also appeared on “Gwedegwede” on August 18, confirmed in calls and messages to CPJ that commenters threatened to take action against Stevie Banda if he did not apologize for his comments. Stevie and Chawezi share a surname but are not related.

A trade group calling itself “Concerned Teachers” issued a statement on August 19, which CPJ reviewed, demanding that Banda and his television station publicly apologize within 72 hours or face protests at the broadcaster’s headquarters.

Chief executive officer and managing director of Mibawa Television, John Nthakomwa, told CPJ via messaging app that the station gave the teachers a right of reply on August 21 and that the protest did not take place. Nthakomwa said he apologized on behalf of Mibawa TV for offending the teachers, but said that he still supported the “Gwedegwede” program.

Stevie Banda told CPJ that he had not reported the matter to police as he believed the threats were made in the heat of the moment by angry teachers and the station had since apologized.  

Kasakula, the editor-in-chief of the Times Group, a conglomerate that owns the broadcaster Times Television and other local outlets, told CPJ that he also received threats following similar statements he made on his “Hot Current” current affairs show on August 23.

On that show, Kasakula said he also believed special allowances for teachers were unnecessary. After it aired, he said he received threatening messages, including a threat to bewitch him and ensure he died, from people identifying themselves as teachers on Facebook and WhatsApp.

On August 26, two local press freedom groups, the Malawian chapter of the Media Institute of Southern Africa and the Media Council of Malawi, released a joint statement condemning the threats against Banda and Kasakula.

Kasakula said the threatening messages subsided after that statement was published, but that, on September 1, a group of people identifying themselves as “Wounded Teachers” arrived at his office with a petition demanding he disavow his statements, and saying that they would commence action against the Times Group within seven days if he did not apologize.

The secretary general of the Teachers Union of Malawi, Charles Kumchenga, told CPJ via messaging app that the union could not confirm whether the threats were made by teachers. He said that the journalists, particularly Kasakula, had not handled the issue “correctly.” In a statement, the union condemned the threats against the journalists.

CPJ called the phone number listed on the “Concerned Teachers” group, but the call did not go through.

Information Minister Gospel Kazako declined to comment directly, but told CPJ via messaging app that the government expected the professional bodies to resolve the situation without government intervention.