- Several new attacks on press freedom in Malawi have been reported during the last days. Three journalists have been ordered to pay a fine of kwacha 450,000 in a defamation case. Further, a community radio station is struggling to get its licence approved.
According to the Media Institute of Southern Africa (MISA), three Malawian journalists have been ordered to pay a fine of K450,000 (approx. US$ 5,000) to Stanbic Bank Malawi managing Director Victor Mbewe, his wife and Stanbic Bank as compensation for a defamatory story the paper ran in December 2002.
The three journalists are Ken Ndanga, Chikumbutso Mtumodzi and Thom Chiumia, owners of 'The New Sun' newspaper, who are infamous for their attacks on perceived enemies of President Bakili Muluzi and the ruling United Democratic Front (UDF) party.
In an article published on December 23, 2002, 'The New Sun' alleged that Mr Mbewe had a love affair with his Bank's Public Relations Officer (PRO). The article further claimed that Mr Mbewe's wife disturbed business at the Bank where she reportedly went to sort it out with the PRO.
Mr Mbewe argued that the article portrayed disorderly conduct to his wife and caused alarm to those whose wives were working with the Bank. High Court Assistant Registrar Michael Tembo said in his ruling that he was convinced that there was a considerable publication of defamatory material in 'The New Sun' of 23 December 2002.
The court observed that Mr Ndanga, Mr Mtumodzi and Mr Chiumia did not show any remorse at the publication of the said defamatory article or attend the hearing for assessment of damages. Mr Mbewe and his wife were awarded K200,000 (approx. US$ 2,200) each for aggravated damages. The journalists are also ordered to pay K50,000 (approx. US$ 556) to Stanbic Bank for defamation.
The three politically-biased journalists have registered their own political party called the New Dawn for Africa (NDA). Mr Chiumia is at the helm of the party, Mr Mtumodzi is its secretary general while Mr Ndanga is a treasurer general. The party has the same acronym as one of Malawi's main opposition parties, which is said to cause confusion among the many illiterate among the voters.
Community radio station in license dispute
In another case, the Malawi Media Women Association (Mamwa) and the community of the Dzimwe area are in a clash over the license to operate the UNESCO-funded Dzimwe Community Radio Station, inside sources told the Malawi chapter of Media Institute of Southern Africa, NAMISA.
NAMISA had learnt that the community, led by messrs Pelekamoyo, Cassim Chigwenembe and Fred Chizule, applied for a licence to operate the station, claiming that Mamwa's mandate had expired. UNESCO's terms of reference indicate that Mamwa is supposed to train the community in running the radio station in order to take it over.
The Malawi Communications Regulatory Authority (MACRA) called in the two wrangling parties and UNESCO to discuss the matter. Meanwhile, MACRA is to table the licensing issue before its board that is expected to make a binding decision. NAMISA was unable to get comments from MACRA and the concerned parties.
President Muluzi apology "unacceptable"
Finally, in what could pass as a face-saving move, President Muluzi has condemned as "unfortunate" the beating of Daniel Nyirenda, a photojournalist with 'The Nation' newspaper, by youths belonging to Muluzi's ruling UDF party. The incident took place on 7 July, at the opening of the UDF mini-convention in Blantyre.
In the statement, President Muluzi however avoided the issue, claiming that "opposition elements" assaulted the photojournalist. "The incident was very unfortunate and was definitely carried out by people who were assigned by enemies of the ruling party," he said. Ironically, President Muluzi pledged to ensure the protection of journalists as the nation prepares for general elections in 2004.
Denis Mzembe, chairperson NAMISA, dismissed the President's statement as unacceptable. "We do not see any commitment at all. There is no way Mr Muluzi can say that these were not UDF members," Mr Mzembe said.
In an interview, UDF Deputy Publicity Secretary and Presidential Affairs Minister Ken Lipenga said Nyirenda was a victim of a "conspiracy philosophy" within the party. "We must admit that there are some people within the party that, for reasons best known to themselves, wanted to sabotage the convention," said Lipenga, who is a former editor-in-chief of 'The Nation'.
Alfred Ntonga, current editor-in-chief of "The Nation", also dismissed President Muluzi's statement, describing it as "business as usual." "He has made similar statements before. In the past, he even ordered the inspector general [of police] to arrest such people, but acts of violence continue to happen," said Mr Ntonga.
Mr Nyirenda was beaten up by UDF youth wing members, who stole his two cameras and a cellphone. UDF youths are on record as having torched vehicles belonging to opposition leaders and harassed journalists and opposition politicians, but no arrests have been made. Police are still investigating cases that date back as far as five years.
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