Malawi journalist Watipaso Mzungu was recently interrogated over an article he published that included quotes that were critical of the president. (Photo: Edwin Mauluka)

Malawi police question journalist Watipaso Mzungu over article calling president ‘a joker’

On April 6, 2021, police in the Malawi capital of Lilongwe interrogated Watipaso Mzungu, the chief reporter of the privately owned news website Nyasa Times, about an article he published on April 2, according to the journalist, who spoke to CPJ via messaging app, and a report by his outlet.

In that article, Mzungu quoted a local activist who referred to President Lazarus Chakwera as “a joker” and a “time waster” in relation to a proposed reshuffling of his cabinet. On April 5, a police officer called Mzungu and said he was wanted for questioning the following day; the officer did not specify the nature of the questioning, and told Mzungu not to bring a lawyer, the journalist told CPJ.

During questioning at the Lilongwe police headquarters, officers said that the article constituted a criminal insult of the president and an attempt to undermine the authority of the head of state, according to Mzungu and a report by the Nyasa Times. The interrogation lasted about two hours, after which Mzungu was released unconditionally after giving a statement in which he stood by the article, according to Mzungu and a local news report.

During the interrogation, officers asked Mzungu about the April 2 article, his motivations for writing it, and whether he had manipulated the activist’s statements to attract public attention, the journalist told CPJ, adding that he had not manipulated those statements.

The officers also demanded that Mzungu give them the unedited draft of his April 2 story, as well as the activist’s original statement, he said. Mzungu told CPJ that the officers did not allow him to contact his lawyer or editor, and he complied with the officers’ request because he did not want to prolong the interrogation.

Malawi Police Service spokesperson James Kadadzera told CPJ by phone that Mzungu was neither detained nor summoned for questioning and that he had merely been “invited for an interview” over an ongoing investigation. He said the journalist had cooperated with the police and was released unconditionally.

Malawi Police Inspector-General George Kainja implied during a press briefing on April 7 that the activist quoted in the article, Sylvester Namiwa, the head of the nongovernmental Centre for Democracy and Economic Development Initiative, was under investigation for his comments in that article, according to Nyasa Times.

Namiwa was quoted by the Nyasa Times in that report as saying that he did not fear arrest as “Malawi is no longer a one-party state which was characterized by rule of darkness, fear and death.”

The local chapter of the Media Institute of Southern Africa, a regional press freedom group, said in a statement on April 6 that it was concerned about the continued “arbitrary summoning, arrests and detentions of journalists” and criticized the police for “attacking media freedom.”

Separately, on April 2, police detained Enock Balakasi, a reporter for the privately owned broadcaster Joy Radio, for more than two hours after he photographed police who had responded to an attempted suicide in Kawale, a suburb of Lilongwe, according to the Media Institute’s statement and Balakasi, who spoke to CPJ via messaging app.

The police accused Balakasi of photographing them without permission, and deleted photos from his phone, according to that statement.

Police charged Balakasi with conduct likely to cause a breach of peace, obstructing police officers on duty, and working without permission from the police, but then dropped those charges after interrogating him and released him unconditionally, he told CPJ.