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Human Rights Day - the perspective from Malawi

Friday 17 January 2020 - 5:23pm

View from Bunda College of Agriculture

To commemorate Human Rights Day, PEN International and PEN Centres are launching an essay series and holding events on human rights issues across the globe.

Malawi has made relative strides as far as freedom of expression is concerned, given a past in which it was deemed taboo to discuss the government – be it in print or electronic media, or any other forum. People are now able to directly criticise the government. During the dictatorial era that spanned from 1964 to 1994, most writers used cryptic language to express their frustrations and journalists would not dare utter a single word against the state. Today people are more or less able to freely write or speak against any governance matter, mostly without fear of reprisal.

However, there are new types of challenges that are detrimental to the status quo and that should be considered if this political space is to be sustained or even improved upon. Recently, there have been a few incidences where the government has targeted some individuals for what they said or how they expressed themselves on social media. For example, according to reports, in April 2019 a man was arrested and charged with insult and a ‘cyber violation’ for likening a picture of the first lady to a cartoon character – an arrest that seems completely arbitrary. He is still on bail pending the state’s readiness with the case.

The Malawi Communications Regulatory Authority (MACRA) has also implemented restrictions on the media. Shortly after the 2019 presidential and parliamentary elections, and during post-election demonstrations following disputed election results, MACRA issued a directive to private media organisations, barring them from covering the events live on their stations, unless they employed a delay machine. MACRA has also summoned private media establishments for questioning over programmes that the government deemed unsuitable.

Phone-in programmes were suspended by MACRA on 7 June 2019 but lifted by the High Court on 25 September 2019, after MISA Malawi, together with Times Group, Capital Radio and Zodiak Broadcasting Station, applied for an injunction to stop the suspension. A judicial review of the case was set for 15 October 2019 and has since been adjourned further. Despite the court ruling, no radio station has resumed operations. These events are troubling, as the role of an institution like MACRA should be to ensure responsible reporting, not to unduly restrict freedom of expression.

The rights to freedom of association and expression have also been undermined at times by the police service, who have on several occasions used excessive force during recent protests, and by ruling party cadres, who have threatened and attacked human rights defenders. From June to October 2019, the Human Rights Defenders Coalition held demonstrations to force the Malawi Electoral chair to resign from her role in presiding over the 2019 Tripartite General Elections, which the protesters alleged were full of irregularities. In a recent incident in September 2019 in Blantyre, when Minister of Agriculture Kondwani Nankhumwa was opening the National Agricultural Fair, members of the ruling party descended upon the demonstrators, reportedly armed with machetes, hacking and wounding the protest leader, Billy Mayaya of the Human Rights Defenders Coalition. Mayaya had to be hospitalised at Queen Elizabeth Central Hospital. It was in this pandemonium that the police chased the demonstrators to disperse the crowd, and tracked them into the hospital premises, where they fired tear gas at the protestors.

In an earlier show of violence, police reportedly assaulted two radio journalists from private media outlet Zodiak Broadcasting Station, who were covering a crackdown by police on street vendors in one of the major cities of the country in 2018. The journalists sustained soft tissue injuries and were treated as outpatients at Mzuzu Health Centre.

Another example of restrictions against the media is the Malawi Revenue Authority’s (MRA) shutdown of two major private media organisations, on allegations of tax evasion. Times Group was closed in January 2017 for accumulated arrears in tax and again on 1 June 2018 for the same offence; Nation Publications was closed on 18 October 2019. In all these cases, the closures lasted for at least two days only to be struck down at the intervention of the courts. It is suspicious, to say the least, that private media publications in particular are being charged with tax evasion and closed immediately, rather than allowed time to negotiate.

The country is facing an additional challenge with the delay in the implementation of access to information legislation. The Access to Information Act 2017, also under MACRA’s purview, has still not been published, allegedly because its rules and regulations are still being formulated. This restricts the kind of information that the public is able to access, and if people are not able to file freedom of information requests, their ability to express concerns on issues of governance or hold officials to account is limited.

In addition, the national broadcaster, Malawi Broadcasting Corporation (MBC), mostly broadcasts opinions favourable to the government and the ruling party. The co-option of some journalists and writers by various political parties is also problematic. This happens in both government-owned media as well as private media establishments. The result is the transmission of fake information, an increasing issue of concern, to the detriment of peace and development.

Finally, colonial-era laws are still in place that constrain the full exercise of freedom of expression, for instance the Printed Publications Act, which was instituted in 1947 and therefore prior to technological innovations, fails to provide equal recognition to e-publications. Other provisions of the Penal code, such as the offence of sedition, unduly restrict freedom of expression and have been used against bloggers and journalists.

This is the environment that the media and writers are confronted with in Malawi. The result of this stifling climate is self-censorship, which many feel is necessary for one’s work to be shown in public, be it poetry, essays, short stories or novels. Even though the country has made progress as a democracy, writers and the media still face some clear restrictions.

This lack of freedom of expression has led to the stalling of almost every institution, be it in the public service or in the private sector. The economic environment favours those who are supportive of the government line, leaving utility organisations such as water boards and energy companies unable to function efficiently. The precariousness of services, the co-option of the media and the pressures to conform have brought Malawians’ morale to a new low.

Alfred Msadala is a poet, short story writer and critic from Malawi. He is also President of PEN Malawi.