- Malawi's ruling United Democratic Front (UDF) has taken responsibility of an attack on a photo-journalist of the 'Nation' newspaper earlier this month, expressing regret. At the same time, however, UDF officials threaten the same newspaper it should not cover its upcoming party convention.
UDF Deputy Publicity Secretary Ken Lipenga told the 'Weekend Nation' that his party was full of regret for an incident at the party's last mini-convention on 7 July in Blantyre. Here, 'Nation' photo-journalist Daniel Nyirenda was beaten up by militants of the party's youth group, the 'Young Democrats'.
Mr Lipenga, in addition to admitting the incident and expressing his regret, promised 'The Nation' to provide security during the upcoming UDF main convention, slated for 8 August. "Journalists will be received like royalty and everything will be perfect," Mr Lipenga said.
At the same time, however, another high-ranking UNF official has threatened to deal with reporters from 'The Nation' and warned the paper not to cover its 8 August convention.
Speaking at a presidential rally in a southern district of Mwanza, UDF Deputy Regional Governor for the South, Samson Msosa alleged that 'The Nation' photo-journalist, Mr Nyirenda, who had been beaten by the 'Young Democrats' earlier this month, indeed was sent by former UDF First Vice President, Aleke Banda.
Mr Banda, who owns 'The Nation', earlier this year resigned from his position and cabinet in protest against President Bakili Muluzi's decision to hand-pick a party presidential candidate during the general elections expected next year.
- 'The Nation' journalists have to be careful, Mr Msosa warned amid applause from the rally. He declared that journalists who want to cover the convention should get "identity cards" from his party's secretariat. "Journalists should come to our convention with UDF identity cards," Mr Msosa said.
But a visibly embarrassed President Muluzi contradicted his lieutenant, saying his party was press friendly. "I think what he meant was an identity card. I will not allow anyone to muzzle the press in this country," Mt Muluzi said. He assured journalists of access to the convention hall.
These contradictions has left media watchdogs like the Windhoek-based Media Institute of Southern Africa (MISA) and Malawian human rights groups to question the UDF's dedication to press freedom.
Also Mr Lipenga's promises of security for independent journalists covering the 8 August convention were therefore met with scepticism from civil rights groups. MISA noted that Mr Lipenga had said his party would not discipline its violent youths, saying UDF was waiting for a report from the police.
Chairperson of the Public Affairs Committee, a religious grouping on socio-political issues, Monsignor Boniface Tamani, demanded that the ruling party should surrender the perpetrators that had attacked journalist Nyirenda to police.
- We are tired of lip service, said Mr Tamani. "The UDF has to get to the bottom of the Young Democrats' issue. The UDF should also compensate the journalist for the trauma and the property lost," he added.
The UDF's first reaction after the beating of Mr Nyirenda had been a total denial and holding the journalist guilty of provocation. President Bakili Muluzi stated the violence was carried out by people who were sent by enemies of the party.
'The Nation' however has been increasingly victimised by the government lately. Since Mr Banda broke ranks with the UDF, 'The Nation' and 'Weekend Nation' became very analytical of the UDF and government policies. "This does not go down well with party functionaries who were used to apologetic reporting on issues concerning them," according to MISA analyst Eva Johnsen.
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