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Malawi’s President Vows Press Freedom But Critics Cite Arrests, Intimidation

FILE - Malawi's President Lazarus Chakwera speaks at the World Leaders' Summit of the COP26 UN Climate Change Conference in Glasgow, Scotland, on Nov. 1, 2021.
FILE - Malawi's President Lazarus Chakwera speaks at the World Leaders' Summit of the COP26 UN Climate Change Conference in Glasgow, Scotland, on Nov. 1, 2021.

Malawi’s President Lazarus Chakwera vowed to protect press freedom in comments to journalists who were invited, for the first time, to the top leader’s home for World Press Freedom Day.

In the event, broadcast on Malawi’s state TV, Chakwera said if his administration feels unjustly defamed by media, they will simply lodge a complaint to regulatory agencies or the courts.

“But we must never seek to harm those who offend us in this way or try to deprive them of their freedom through illegal searches, seizures, arrest or invasive acts like hacking, harassment and Cyber bullying," Chakwera said. "These things have no place in free society and this is a free country.”

Invited press freedom activists welcomed Chakwera’s words, but said more actions were needed to prevent journalists from being abused.

Teresa Ndanga is chairwoman of the Media Institute of Southern Africa in Malawi.

She told the president that Malawi’s politicians and police have harassed, arrested, and attacked journalists without consequence.

“We have tried to enlighten the public, approach successive Inspector Generals of Police, secretary generals of political parties on the importance of safeguarding media freedom but it is sad to say, sir, that nobody has been prosecuted and there is a spirit on impunity that continues to grow," Ndanga said. "Your Excellency, we need arrests, we need prosecutions and people need to know that attacking a journalist is a crime.”

Malawi police in April detained investigative journalist Gregory Gondwe, who said they seized his computer and smart phone and tried to pressure him to reveal sources on a government corruption story.

Gondwe’s detention came just after Malawi’s Attorney General Chakaka Nyirenda said he would take action against those who leaked a document used in his story.

Gondwe’s Platform for Investigative Journalism website was later hacked, raising suspicions about possible police involvement.

Social media posts have also come under scrutiny. Malawi police on Saturday arrested a nurse for insulting Chakwera during a WhatsApp debate on governance.

The nurse was charged with cyber harassment and faces up to five years in prison if found guilty.

The nurse’s arrest comes a week after police in the capital, Lilongwe, arrested a 51-year-old man for allegedly insulting the minister of labor in his WhatsApp group post.

Press freedom activist Ndanga said the government should repeal laws that impinge on media freedom and are used to punish government critics.

Chakwera said his administration was working to reform such laws.

“Having worked as legislator myself, I know that the process of changing our laws, can be painstaking and cumbersome, but I am determined to see it done,” Chakwera said.

Malawi’s Minister of Information Gospel Kazako also urged journalists to be responsible and committed to professional standards if they want to continue enjoying the country’s press freedom.