President Bingu wa Mutharika of Malawi has recently signed a bill into law that will make it possible for Malawi’s information minister to ban the circulation of any publication that is deemed “contrary to public interest.” This amendment of Section 46 of the Penal Code has made international headlines and caused media uproar over the condemnation on media freedom.
The previous version of this law dates back to when Malawi was under a one-party rule. Under this old law, the information minister was allowed to ban local publications without reason. When a multi-party democracy came into play in 1994, the law was considered repressive and was no longer used. Under this amendment the information minister must have reasonable grounds for the banning of any publication.
President Mutharika threatened to close newspapers in August 2010 that tarnished his government’s image and, in November 2010, the Weekly Times was banned because it failed to register with the national archives.
In early February, journalist Kondwani Kamiyala was arrested because she took photographs in Blantyre of police who were administering police brutality during the launch album of musicians Skeffa Chimoto.
Kamiyala took photographs of law enforcement officers battering a suspected thief. Kamiyala, who works for Nation Newspaper, refused to delete the photos and was arrested by police. Section 46 of the Penal Code in Malawi states, “If the minister has reasonable grounds to believe that the publication or importation of any publication would be contrary to the public interest, he may, by order published in the Gazette, prohibit the publication or importation of such a publication.”
This bill has been extremely controversial not only on a national level but an international level. The International Press Institute, which is a global network of journalists, editors and media executives, has stated concerns over President Mutharika’s administration for the publications ban law.
Mutharika said, “I will close any newspaper that writes to ‘tarnish’ the good image of my government and the progressive development that we are experiencing,” according to the International Press Institute.
Reporters Without Borders has been urging Mutharika to repeal the amendment by writing letters. According to All Africa News, the letter from Reporters Without Borders’ Secretary-General Jean-Francois Julliard said that the law, “ushers in the reign of the arbitrary by empowering a minister to determine what is in the public interest and what is not. On the one hand, you claim to be champion of media freedom, while on the other, you do not hesitate, as you did last August, to threaten to close newspapers which in your view ‘lie and tarnish’ the government’s image. Is the aim of this new law to allow you to crack down on newspapers that criticise your actions?”
Reporters Without Borders argues that this new amendment contradicts article 36 of the 1995 Malawi Constitution, which allows for press to report and publish freely in Malawi and internationally, stating, “The press shall have the right to report and publish freely, within Malawi and abroad, and to be accorded the fullest possible facilities for access to public information.”
The Media Institute of Southern Africa’s Malawi Chapter (MISA-Malawi) is also upset over the deci-sion by President Mutharika. MISA-Malawi petitioned the president soon after the bill was passed in parliament asking him to send back the bill for further consultation.
MISA-Malawi and other important media bodies, including the Media Council of Malawi, believe there was not enough adequate consultation of the amendments.
Due to Malawi’s amended and repressive media laws and poor human rights records, German and U.S. governments have threatened to withdraw financial support from the country.
Some believe this move by the president could be a strategy by the government to be able to attack publications that are critical of Mutharika’s administration. With this new law affecting the media and the people in Malawi, media practitioners will now have to censor what they write with fear that their media freedom will be revoked. This is a huge issue on an international level. A key part of democracy is expression of freedom and this law takes that freedom away from journalists and citizens. Only time will tell if the pleas of Malawians and the international community will help repeal this law against media freedom. Malawi and its supporters hope that a progressive democracy will triumph censorship in its future.