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A bad weekend for Malawian journalists

The government of Malawian President Bingu Wa Mutharika, pictured, has threatened journalists with fines and arrests for disrespecting him. (AFP/Alexander Joe)

No media outlet critical of President Bingu Wa Mutharika or the ruling Democratic Progressive Party was spared by the government this past weekend -- whether print, broadcast, or online. The broadside included a public campaign to discredit the media as well as threats of fines and arrests of critical journalists.

Sunday, the ruling party's director of youth, Frank Mwenifumbo, threatened civil servants during a public rally against advertising in or even reading any publication from the independent group Nation Publications Limited. "Newspapers have been writing bad things about the DPP [Democratic Progressive Party] and our president instead of reporting on good things. If I see The Nation newspaper in your offices, we'll suspect you. Stop buying it! Stop advertising in it," Mwenifumbo was quoted as saying by local reports.

Nation Publications (not to be confused with the Kenyan publishers of the same name) publishes the daily The Nation, The Weekend Nation, Nation on Sunday and a free community newsletter, Fuko, in Malawi. The Nation journalist Kondwani Munthali told me that politicians, both in the ruling and opposition parties, target the paper because it is a popular, trusted news source for Malawian citizens.

A day earlier, Malawian Health Minister Jean Kalirani addressed a group of Malawians residing in the U.K., urging them not to read the U.K.-based Malawi news website Nyasa Times. "May I ask you people in the U.K. that you must not read Nyasa Times because it doesn't write good stories about President Mutharika and the DPP," the minister was quoted as saying by the Nyasa Times at Malawi's High Commission in London. Malawian Education Minister George Chaponda had made a similar appeal at a church in Nottingham, England, a few months before, the site reported. Although sometimes sensational, the U.K.-based site is known for tough stories on Malawi, local journalists told me.

In addition to telling the Malawi public what to read, ruling party cadres are threatening to arrest journalists for any reporting deemed insulting to the president and his governance record. In a strongly worded statement released by the State House on Friday, Press Officer Albert Mungomo accused the media of insulting Mutharika and distorting his statements and actions to misinform and confuse the nation. In order to quell the Malawian media's "impudence," the statement warned journalists that the government could use a colonial-era law -- the Flags, Emblems, and Names Protection Act -- to imprison and fine journalists "1,000 pounds" for airing or publishing material that insults or disrespects the president. (Malawi became independent from the U.K. in 1964. One British pound equals about 259 of the local currency, the kwacha).

"There are numerous articles monitored on our dailies namely; [The] Nation newspaper and Daily Times," Mungomo told me. "These papers are hostile to the president and government."

Journalists who question the president's record are, according to Mungomo, instigating unrest and ruining Malawi's relations with donors. "The intention is to create an impression that Malawi is a failed state on governance issues and that the purported situation is worrying Malawians and donors," the statement reads. For a government so sensitive to donors' impressions, it's interesting that President Mutharika told supporters at a public event this month that donors can "go to hell" if they question his democratic credentials.

The State House's message harbors an argument CPJ has seen before. African leaders often accuse critical media of tarnishing donor relations and hindering economic development. In May last year, Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni accused local and international media of being "enemies of Uganda's recovery" for coverage of opposition-led protests over high fuel prices. Uganda's ruling party has even introduced a proposal in parliament to criminalize reporting that the government considers "economic sabotage."

The government's ire was both broad and specific. The State House said, for instance, that references to the president as the "Big Kahuna" in Ralph Tenthani's Sunday Times columns (he is also a BBC reporter) will no longer be tolerated. "It means the Big Boss," Tenthani told the Media Institute of Southern Africa. "I don't know how it is demeaning to the president. I have met the president several times and we have joked about it, for I use it almost every week in my column." 

The government also accused social networks of insulting the president and, worryingly, claimed the State House "monitors carefully such networks that are hostile and probably careless in demeaning the president." Radio broadcasters were not spared either --Mungomo charged broadcasters with allowing callers to castigate the president through phone-in programs.

"The Malawi State House is only appealing to such media houses and indeed individuals to report responsibly," Mungomo told me. "Insulting a democratically elected president who we deem our 'father' in this country will not help us as a nation."

Even if the government's warnings have a chilling effect on local journalism, at least one source of news is in a position to defy the threats. "The fact is we will carry on serving Malawians with timely news updates, especially with upcoming general elections in 2014," Nyasa Times Website Managing Editor Edgard Chibaka told me from the U.K. "They [the Malawi government] do not want any media like Nyasa Times which has a global reach."

But for many journalists inside Malawi, the government's legal threats are a cause for concern. Besides the colonial-era law cited in the government statement, journalists are still on tenterhooks over an amendment to the penal code that empowers the information minister to ban any publication that she deems not in the public interest. "Perhaps it is time for the government to allow the public to determine what reporting is in their public interest," one journalist who, tellingly, preferred anonymity, told me.

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