Malawi journalists, activists threatened with "insult to the President" laws

Malawi's State House issued a statement in early March 2012 in which it threatened journalists and civil society with application of an "Insult to the President" law emanating from the Banda era, which could result in fines or imprisonment.

The threatening statement by State House does not indicate how these provisions of an Act emanating from the Banda era, survive testing against Malawi's 2006 constitution, which in sections 33-35 provides for freedom of conscience, of opinion, of expression, and the right of the press to report and public freely.

Indeed the Malawi Constitution provides in s44 that "no restrictions or limitations may be placed on the exercise of any rights and freedoms provided for in this Constitution other than those prescribed by law, which are reasonable, recognized by international human rights standards and necessary in an open and democratic society."

Excerpts from the lengthy statement from State House include the following:

"The State House finds it laughable that civil society organizations who should partner government in development can receive donor money to work against their own Head of State and government. This is despicable shame. How wicked can a child be to work towards the divorce of his / her own parents.

"The State House has further observed that certain papers refer the Head of State as the 'big kahuna' or 'Moya'. This is demeaning our own Head of State and no sensible and sound journalist would propagate such reportage. This MUST stop forthwith.

"Most recently, just to mention but a few examples, the State House noted with dismay and concern a lead story on the front of the Nation Newspaper of Friday 2nd March 2012, captioned 'Bingu's Sneaky Fuel Strategy'. The article did not only carry misleading information about facts on the ground but went a mile further with a cartoon that mentioned the name Mutharika to illustrate a point.

"We all know that 'Mutharika' is the current Head of State and to portray him through such a demeaning cartoon is deliberate provocation and stretching the State President beyond any acceptable limits.

"The laws of Malawi provide for the total respect and protection of the Head of State. Section 3(2) of the Protected Flag, Emblems and Names Act provides that "Any person who does any act or utters any words or publishes any writing calculated to or liable to insult or to show disrespect to or with respect to or with reference to the President...shall be liable to a fine of 1000 pounds and to imprisonment for two (2) years. " His Excellency Ngwazi Professor Bingu wa Mutharika is therefore protected by that law. The State House believes that such insults are a violation of the law that protects him.

"Stories and headlines like 'Bingu gets grilled, Government barks at nothing, An arrogant Bingu', are nothing but sensational and irresponsible writing that is only designed to provoke certain quarters of the society. Some social networks carry articles and comments that openly insult and ridicule His Excellency the State President. The State House monitors carefully such networks that are hostile and probably careless in demeaning the State President."

Chairperson of the Media Institute of Southern Africa (MISA) Malawi Chapter, Anthony Kasunda has reponded: “as MISA Malawi, we are greatly shocked with the threats that have come from the highest office of the land. The issues raised in the statement do not in any way warrant such a strong warning of arrest. The media in Malawi, as far as the Chapter is concerned, are doing a commendable job. Government or indeed the State House should have lodged a complaint with us or the Media Council of Malawi. MISA Malawi is at the moment consulting concerned stakeholders to map the way forward.”

Kasunda appealed to media practitioners and media houses in Malawi not to feel intimidated by the threats from State House. “As long as the media remains professional, we shall always exercise and enjoy freedom of expression and media freedom as stipulated in the supreme law of the land, the Constitution,” he said.

 

© 2016 Dullah Omar Institute
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