BLANTYRE, MALAWI— Media monitoring groups in Malawi are calling for authorities to first refer to them any matter concerning journalists accused of professional misconduct.
Editor Justice Mponda of the Internet publication Malawi Voice is charged with publishing false news likely to cause fear and alarm among the people. He is free on bail after pleading not guilty, and is expected to appear next month in a Malawi court.
Mponda was arrested after running a story based on what government officials say was a "fake Facebook account" for Malawi President Joyce Banda, on which the president allegedly announced she had failed to run the country and would resign.
The online publication also reported the Malawi government had given Tanzanian High Commissioner Malawi Patrick Tsere 48 hours to leave the country, following a radio interview in which Tsere said a portion of Lake Malawi belongs to Tanzania. Malawi and Tanzania government officials dismissed the story as untrue.
Malawi media monitoring groups say their role of arbitration in disciplining journalists for professional misconduct has been undermined by the government arresting journalists.
“What we say is that when a party or an individual or government department feels aggrieved by the media, if they feel they have suffered defamation, the Media Council [of Malawi] has an arbitration committee where you can present your matter, and it is heard just like the same way it is done in the courts, only that at the Media Council you need not to bring a lawyer,” said Anthony Kasunda, the Chairperson for the National Media Institute for Southern Africa.
Kasunda says the arbitration committee, which is chaired by a judge, can penalize journalists who are found guilty of misconduct, similar to the procedure lawyers follow when they disbar their peers.
“This Media Council of Malawi can suspend a journalist from practicing, if he has committed gross professional misconduct," added Kasunda. "And if there is need for compensation, it will determine, and if there is a need for an apology, a determination will be made to that effect.”
Kasunda says arresting journalists damages Malawi's internationally standing.
“And you know, when you arrest a journalist, it becomes an international issue and we sometimes tarnish our own image as a country," said Kasunda. "But we are not saying we encourage unprofessionalism. If a journalist does something out of the professional conduct, I think the law has to take its course. But if the journalist has been arrested for doing his job or her job, then we have a problem with that arrest.”
Deputy National Police Spokesperson Kelvin Maigwa says what media groups are pushing for is inconsistent with how police should carry out their duties.
“It is not practical because if we go and approach a journalist who has committed a crime and say, ‘Mr. ABCD, what you did is wrong. Next time, do not do it,’ other sectors of the society will also come to us," said Maigwa. "Maybe the driver [who] has committed an offense on the road, he will also say, ‘Do not arrest or penalize or fine us. You are supposed to invite us for a roundtable discussion."
University of Malawi Chancellor College law professor Edge Kanyongolo says there are many laws in Malawi that restrict journalists. He cites laws against libel and against insulting the president as rules that have no place in a democratic state.
Kanyongolo says laws such as these need to be challenged in court because they are inconsistent with the country's constitution.
“But it does not mean that journalists are not subject to the law because every person is subject to the law," said Kanyongolo. "Where a person feels that they have been defamed, they should be able to use the courts. Those who do not want to go to court can also go to Media Council of Malawi to lodge their complaints, and it should not be necessary to involve the police.”
Editor Justice Mponda is the second journalist to be arrested since President Banda took office in April, after the death of Bingu wa Mutharika. Blantyre newspaper reporter Clement Chinoko was arrested in May for writing a false story about two Malawian women becoming engaged. Chinoko has yet to appear in court on charges of misconduct likely to cause a breach of peace.