Reporters Without Borders wrote to President Bingu Wa Mutharika today urging him to repeal an amendment to Section 46 of the Penal Code that deals a very severe blow to media freedom. The organization said it was dismayed to learn that President Mutharika had promulgated the amendment, which was recently adopted by parliament.
President Bingu Wa Mutharika (AFP)
“It ushers in the reign of the arbitrary by empowering a minister to determine what is in the public interest and what is not,” Reporters Without Borders secretary-general Jean-François Julliard said in the letter. “This is something that should be clearly defined rather that left to the personal judgment of a member of your government.
“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 criticize your actions?”
The letter adds: “We fear that the new law will encourage journalists to censor themselves or to be subservient towards the information minister, thereby depriving the press of their independence and their ability to speak out. You now have the opportunity to reassure observers about your commitment to media freedom. By repealing this law, you would send a strong signal.”
Adopted without sufficient consultation with the sectors concerned, this new law states: “If the [information] 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 publication.”
This law is both retrograde and contrary to article 36 of the 1995 constitution, which says: “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.”
Germany’s economic cooperation and development minister, Dirk Niebel, has suspended disbursement of 2.5 million euros in assistance to Malawi in reaction to this law’s adoption and to the government’s refusal to discuss it, while a 12-15 February visit to Malawi by German deputy development minister Gudrun Kopp was cancelled. In a joint statement on 12 February, seven donor countries said they “share concerns voiced by many Malawians about certain negative trends."
Last August, President Mutharika said he had the power to close newspapers that criticized the government. He did not name any newspaper, but he was clearly alluding above all to The Nation, a privately-owned daily that has been deprived of state advertising.