BLANTYRE - Malawi President Peter Mutharika is under fire for giving envelopes containing $125 to more than 80 media people at a dinner he hosted last month in Blantyre. The editor of the privately owned Times Television said reporters were told the envelopes contained the president’s plans for the media - which has been critical of the government’s economic performance.
In his column published in Malawi’s Sunday Times newspaper, editor Grecian Tukula said he was not sure why the money was given to journalists at the state dinner.
Tukula said he initially decided to return the money but reversed the decision to avoid "creating a scene."
But the editor for the Weekend Nation newspaper, George Kasakula, told VOA that he returned the money right away.
“I just felt it was not right for me to receive the money, so I returned it. My understanding is that if someone invites me to a workshop, it’s their duty to ensure that they feed me, they accommodate me and they transport me. But in this case, I didn’t see why I should get that allowance because I didn’t spend anything to go to Sanjika [Palace],” said Kasakula.
The issue has attracted more public attention after privately owned Capital Radio aired a story questioning the meaning of the cash handouts from the president.
“As Capital FM we serve the interest of the public. This issue has been all over the social media, and even we as a media are implicated [we believe] it is paramount that we follow up and get to the bottom of the matter,” said Steven Dakalira, the head of news and current affairs at Capital Radio.
In his column in the Nyasa Times, Malawi professor of law Danwood Mzikenge Chirwa said what President Mutharika did by giving money handouts to journalists at a news event was tantamount to bribery. He has called on Mutharika to resign or face impeachment proceedings.
Local civil society groups said that “by attempting to bribe the journalists” Mutharika subjected his leadership style to disrepute.
Meanwhile, some journalists are donating the money to charity.
Brian Ligomeka, the Managing Editor for the Times Group, told Times Television that all four employees there have donated the money to an orphanage.
“At first we decided to return the money to the president but we later thought it wise to buy assorted items like sugar, salt, notebooks and donate it to needy children,” said Ligomeka.
In his latest Sunday Times column, Raphael Tenthani, who also writes for BBC, apologized on behalf of other journalists “for letting down the public that trust journalists unreservedly.”
Tenthani has since donated the money for charity work and said that although the journalists could have done better if they returned the money right away, doing so would have been perceived as disrespect to the head of state.
Maclan Kanyang’wa, who heads the Department of Journalism and Media Studies at the Polytechnic College of the University of Malawi, said a media code of ethics bars journalists from accepting payment on a story.
“Obviously the meeting at the palace was the newsworthy event. There was a possibility that something was going to be published. And in the event that this payment would have influenced journalist decision [on news judgment], then that becomes a problem,” said Kanyang’wa.
Kanyang’wa said he feels many journalists failed to return the money immediately because they might have been out of their ethical senses when they got the money.
Efforts to talk to Presidential Press Officer Fredrick Ndala were not successful. But some government authorities say the payment was not a bribe but meant for a fuel refund to those who attended the night event.