Journalist Greyson Chapita, seen here in 2020 at a Malawi Broadcasting Corporation control rooms in Blantyre, had his laptop searched by Malawi police on February 15, 2024. (Photo: Courtesy of Greyson Chapita)
Journalist Greyson Chapita, seen here in China during a training session in 2019. Chapita had his laptop searched by Malawi police on February 15, 2024. (Photo: Courtesy of Greyson Chapita)

Malawi police seize equipment from journalists amid ‘fake’ Facebook page investigation

On February 13, officers from Malawi’s Digital Forensics and Cybercrime Investigations department seized cell phones and laptops from 14 Malawi Broadcasting Corporation (MBC) journalists, according to news reports, the Malawi chapter of regional press freedom group Media Institute of Southern Africa, South Africa-based rights group Campaign for Free Expression, and four of the affected journalists, who spoke to CPJ. The police officers seized cell phones from each of the 14 journalists and laptops from five of this group.

The seizures took place largely at MBC offices in Blantyre, Lilongwe, and Mzuzu following a complaint by MBC’s management about the creation of a “fake” Facebook page bearing the corporation’s name and logo, which the outlet had not approved, according to the Media Institute of Southern Africa (MISA), the journalists, and police search warrants reviewed by CPJ. The complaint accused the 14 journalists of “spamming,” which carries a maximum penalty of two million Malawian kwacha (about US$1,190) and imprisonment for five years under section 91 of Malawi’s Electronic Transactions and Cybersecurity Act.

As of March 8, police returned three laptops and nine phones to the journalists, according to a journalist who spoke to CPJ on the condition of anonymity out of fear of reprisal. The journalist, whose phone has been returned, is concerned that the device has been compromised while in police custody and will no longer use it.

Another journalist, who also spoke to CPJ on the condition of anonymity out of fear of reprisal, said some MBC colleagues received email notifications about attempts to log into their Instagram and X accounts while their devices were in police custody.

Malawi police spokesperson Peter Kalaya told CPJ in a late February 2024 phone interview that the police investigation was being conducted in response to a legitimate complaint, and police had obtained a warrant before seizing and searching the devices. 

“The investigation is not targeting journalists, it is targeting people who we suspect to be responsible” for the Facebook page, Kalaya said, but he declined to explain how the police had determined which individuals were suspects. 

“We have a forensics laboratory and sometimes we use other institutions’ forensic laboratories,” Kalaya told CPJ, but declined to give specifics about the technologies used to search the journalists’ devices. “Our search in the gadgets is going to be restricted to those apps that we believe or that we suspect were used in the commission of the crime,” Kalaya told CPJ, adding that the journalists whose devices had been seized should trust the professionalism of the investigating officers. “Why should a police officer go to contacts, to [the] photo gallery when what he is looking for is not there, or if he does not suspect it will be there?” he said.

In January 2024, the local Platform for Investigative Journalism (PIJ-Malawi) reported that Malawian authorities had obtained the Universal Forensic Extraction Device (UFED), a powerful technology designed to access and extract information from electronic devices and sold by the Israel-based company Cellebrite. The Malawi police sought to further expand its investigative capacity with similar tools, according to the report. In response to CPJ’s questions about which tools, including those sold by Cellebrite, police used to search the devices of MBC journalists, Kalaya declined to give specifics.

CPJ has previously documented the use of Cellebrite’s UFED by police in Botswana to search journalists’ phones and has raised the issue of privacy concerns when law enforcement seizes devices and has access to such technology

MBC director general George Kasakula declined to comment until the police investigation into the alleged spamming concludes at an unknown date.

On February 15, five police officers looking for Greyson Chapita, MBC’s suspended controller of news and programs, arrived at his daughter’s home. The officers told family members there to call Chapita and tell him that his daughter was sick to lure him there, the journalist told CPJ, adding that his family obliged, and he arrived shortly after. Once Chapita arrived, police officers told him that he was a suspect in a murder and requested to search his phone and laptop, but he initially refused.

Chapita told the officers that he would not comply until he verified that they were police officers, and he went with them to the local police station to confirm their identities. Once confirmed by a senior officer, Chapita returned with them to his home, where the officers showed him the same warrant citing MBC management’s complaint, and he opened his laptop and entered his password, he told CPJ. The officers then looked through his Facebook account for 30 minutes without further explanation as Chapita watched.

“[T]hey checked my Facebook account and took screenshots. They made me sign a document showing that they searched my laptop and did not find anything, so they didn’t take it. They couldn’t see my phone because it is not a smartphone,” the journalist added.

When asked about the police officers’ tactics used to summon Chapita and search his computer, Kalaya told CPJ that he could not comment on the specifics of the incident, but he said the journalist could file a complaint. 

“What I can assure you is that our investigators are very professional and whatever they are doing is very professional,” Kalaya said.

Editor’s note: The photo caption in this case was corrected to reflect another location and time.