Malawi

By Kendall T. Ward

Introductionflag of malawi

Malawi is a small, young country in southeast Africa that was ranked 70th in the 2017World Press Freedom Index by Reporters Without Borders and has a “partly free” rating for both their press and internet rights according to the Freedom House (Reporters Without Borders, 2017) (Freedom House, 2018). Their ranking fell two spots from the previous year, but Malawi generally remains around the middle of the spread from most to least free countries. Despite being a democratic country with free speech and free press rights written in its constitution, Malawians still struggle for these freedoms against a government that sometimes uses censorship, excessive police force and cover-ups to silence their citizens and journalists.

Historical Background

Malawi was originally colonized by Jesuit missionaries as early as the 17th century, but truly fell under European rule when the Scottish and British started to settle there in the late 19th century. It wasn’t until the end of World War II that there was enough nationalist strength for the Malawians to gain independence, and they were ultimately able to do so in 1963 under the leadership of former Prime Minister Hastings Kamuza Banda, leader of the Malawi Congress Party (MCP). After gaining independence, Malawi became a democratic republic and as of 2016 has a population of more than 18,000,000 people according to the World Bank, making it one of the most densely populated countries in Africa (World Bank, 2016). More than 99 percent of the population is black African with the remaining 0.5 percent coming from mostly British and Indian descent. There is a bit more religious diversity in the country, with about 10 percent of the population practicing traditional native religions, 80 percent practicing Christianity and 15 percent practicing Islam. Malawi remains a fairly poor and underdeveloped country because of its agriculturally dependent economy and the amount of government funding required to combat the rampant AIDS/HIV epidemic in the country (Funk & Wagnalls New World Encyclopedia, 2017).

Free Speech

Malawi has a long history of both written law and legal precedent protecting its citizens’ rights to free speech. The free speech issues in Malawi are often not centered in the written law, but rather on how citizens, journalist, activists and dissenters are treated by their government. In his article “Playing the tyrant away: Creative academic resistance to dictatorship in Malawi,” David Kerr of the University of Botswana writes about the many ways that artists, activists and actors would express their dissent for the Malawi Congress Party’s rule from 1964 to 1994. One such activist was Jack Mapanje, a poet and close friend of Kerr’s who was arrested in 1987 for the poetry published in his book Chameleons and Gods which used metaphor to criticize the MCP regime (Kerr, 2010).  Mapanje was imprisoned for four years until his release in May 1991, with no charges ever being filed (Poetry Foundation, 2018). Twenty years later, the country wasn’t doing too much better. In 2011, The International Freedom of Expression Exchange (IFEX) and Reporters Without Borders called for journalists to be able to fairly and impartially investigate the death of student and political activist Robert Chasowa, who died “in circumstances that are far from clear,” (IFEX/RSF, 2011). Leading up to his death, Chasowa had published a pro-democracy newsletter and a Weekly Political Update that was highly critical of then-President Bingu wa Mutharika. Although the Malawian police originally ruled the death a suicide, there were many factors that weren’t adding up. Finally in 2012, a few months after the death of President Mutharika, it was reported by David Smith of The Guardian that Chasowa’s death was ruled as a murder after a commission of inquiry chaired by Supreme Court Appeal Judge Andrew Nyirenda further investigated Chasowa’s death (Smith, 2012). The Chasowa case presents both an issue of free speech and free press, as Chasowa was clearly targeted and killed for his expression of his beliefs, and the press was unable to properly investigate and report on his death for months after his murder because of government interference.

The death of Chasowa is not the only time that police were involved in suppressing free speech of Malawians. There are many reports of protestors and activists being beaten, attacked, or excessively tear gassed in recent years, including a group of about 500 school children aged 6 to 12 in November 2014. These students joined a protest strike with their teachers who had gone underpaid or completely unpaid for most of 2014. During the strike, students took to the streets marching towards the president’s home to demand their teachers be paid so they could finally return to classes. It was reported that during their strike, police used tear gas to disperse the children, and that none of the protestors were seriously injured (The Associated Press, 2014). The Malawian government has also actively censored individuals because of their religious and political beliefs. In 2016, U.S. pastor and the founder of Faith Word Baptist Church, Steven Anderson, was banned from coming to Malawi and opening a church because of his anti-homosexual beliefs and rhetoric. Although gay marriage is not yet legal in Malawi, a Malawian government spokesperson said that Anderson was not welcome because of his “hate preaching” towards homosexuals, and he would “not be received well here” (Bisani, 2016).

There have been some developments made recently that have expanded the rights to free speech and expression. One such improvement was the recent passage of the 2017 Access to Information Act. This bill was designed to allow for more transparency in government activity and strengthens the right to information and free speech in Malawi. According to the bill itself it is described as “an Act to provide for the right of access to information of public bodies and relevant private bodies; the process and procedures related to obtaining that information; and to provide for matters connected therewith or incidental thereto,” (Malawi Government, 2017). Although there have been some developments in the fight for freedom of speech, a recent report from Afrobarometer analysts Thomas Isbell and Joseph Chunga show that a majority of Malawians felt they needed to be careful about what they said about politics and their government from 2016 to 2017 (Dionne, 2017). The publishing of this report was enough to spur peaceful protests and demonstrations led by the Public Affairs Committee in late 2017, calling for the reform of electoral laws and more freedom of political expression.

Free Press

Malawi has a long history of both using and abusing their press outlets. Despite many news outlets being accused of having a strong government biased and being used as “propaganda machines,” many independent journalists and smaller news outlets are still harmed and oppressed throughout the country (Freedom House, 2015). Freedom of the press is constitutionally guaranteed in Malawi but some of their laws still interfere with journalists’ ability to report the news. One law that censors journalists is the 1967 Protected Flag, Emblems and Names Act, a law which protects certain public figures and symbols like the flag from being insulted by both private citizens and journalists (Government of Malawi, 1967). The 1947 Printed Publications Act is another piece of legislation that has limited the press, as it places high requirements on those trying to register to publish printed matter like newspapers and journals (Government of Malawi, 1947). Despite these laws, not all Malawian legislation is anti-press. Recently in 2012, the Malawi parliament repealed an amendment to article 46 of their penal code which was essentially a censorship law that allowed the government to censor and ban any news that was not “in the public interest.” It was passed two years earlier in 2010, but repealed after backlash from many press freedom organizations and local civil society groups (The Committee to Protect Journalists, 2012).

Even beyond written legal restrictions, many journalists have also faced physical suppression and violence while reporting and investigating in Malawi. One such journalist who faced censorship was Clement Chinoko, a journalist for Blantyre Newspapers Limited who was arrested and held in police custody in 2012 for writing an article on same-sex marriage. Chinoko was arrested just six days after his article was published, which claimed that two local women were engaged to be married, and led him to be charged with “conduct likely to cause breach of peace,” (Media Institute of Southern Africa, 2012). One of the most violent instances involving journalists were the anti-government protests that broke out in July 2011 as a result of fuel shortages, rising prices and high unemployment across the country. The protests lasted two days from July 20 to 21, and ended with 41 people injured, 18 dead, and at least eight journalists were reported to have been beaten by police while they were actively prohibited from reporting on and covering the protests (Mapondera and Smith, 2011).

Although journalists have traditionally faced physical intimidation and harm in Malawi, in recent years there has been less violence against the press and in both 2017 and 2018, there were no journalists, citizen journalists or mediaassistants killed in Malawi and there have been none imprisoned so far in 2018 (Reporters Without Borders, 2018). Even though there does not appear to be as much physical violence against journalists, there are still instances of journalists being censored by the Malawian government. One such example occurred in 2017 when the Blantyre Printing and Publishing Company, a member of the Times Group, was shut down, officially over unpaid taxes, but their closure is thought to really be related to their publishing of stories covering “maize gate,” a controversy surrounding the country’s agriculture minister who was later fired because of his involvement in the scandal (IFEX, 2017). The Times Group proceeded to obtain an injunction against the Malawi Revenue Authority from closing their property and premises, and their injunction was upheld in February 2017 by the high court in the country’s capital after Justice Joseph Chigona ruled that “refusing to allow Times Group an injunction would cause more injustice because it is a business entity that has been operating in the country for many years,” (Katona, 2017). After failing to shut the Times down through the Malawi Revenue Authority, the former minister of agriculture brought forth several defamation cases against the Times and other news outlets, which are still going through the courts as of April 2018 (Namazunda, 2018).

Critical Comparison

When comparing the state of free speech and free press in the United States and Malawi, there are many similarities that can be observed between the two countries. Overall, though, it would seem the United States is freer in both their speech and press rights. There are still similar behaviors, especially in the treatment of journalists that occur in both the United States and Malawi. Instances like poet Jack Mapanje’s arrest would be very unlikely to happen in the current day United States because printed materials like books and poetry have the highest protection under the First Amendment, and there are no recent instances of authors being arrested for the contents of their publications. Often, modern American cases on censorship center around the classroom, “banned books”, and student’s First Amendment rights, buta writer being arrested for the content of his publication is reminiscent of the Gitlow v. State of New York (1925) decision in which Benjamin Gitlow was arrested and imprisoned for his communist publications, The Left Wing Manifesto and The Revolutionary Age. The court ruled against Gitlow because it believed that speech directly advocating for the overthrow of the government could be reasonably suppressed. In both the Gitlow and Mapanje cases the government censored and punished an author almost exclusively for the contents of their publications, but a case like this would be very unlikely to occur in current day America and an author would certainly not be held for three years without charges or bail posted. In addition, the Gitlow ruling has since been over turned by the Supreme Court and is no longer valid law. There are also some differences in how student protestors are treated in each country. In the United States, student protestors at universities like those who participated in the Vietnam War protests sometimes faced police resistance and were tear gassed, but modern-day student protestors like the ones who have recently participated in the March For Our Lives protests for gun reform in 2018 have been able to peacefully participate in organized walk-outs and marches without facing physical harm or violence. Although it may be awful to think about elementary and middle school aged children being attacked with tear gas, one could also find it inspiring to see student activists across the globe participating in civil protests for their rights to a safe and quality education.

In regard to the banning of Pastor Steven Anderson, it is very unlikely that the United States would ban someone from the country simple for holding anti-homosexual views. Taking in to consideration the Supreme Court’s decision in Snyder v. Phelps (2011) in which the court ruled in favor of the defendants from the notoriously homophobic Westboro Baptist Church and their use of offensively homophobic and anti-American rhetoric in a peaceful protest, it is unlikely that a person’s homophobic beliefs and preaching would warrant a ban from the country.

The United States and Malawi also have very different stances on protecting public figures and symbols like the flag and national emblems. In Malawi, there is the 1967 Protected Flag, Emblems and Names Act that provides fines and up to two years of imprisonment for the insult or defamation of the head of state, the national flag, and the public seal. On the contrary, in the United States, none of these people or objects are protected. The head of state is considered a public figure who has placed himself or herself in the public domain and in doing so have opened himself or herself up to criticism from both private and public entities. In regard to the flag, the case of Texas v. Johnson (1989) ruled in favor of Gregory Lee Johnson whose burning of the flag was considered to be “symbolic speech” protected under the First Amendment right to freedom of expression. It is because of these legal precedents that it would be unlikely for the United States to adopt a piece of legislation similar to Malawi’s presently.

Although the United States ranks higher in their World Press Freedom Index at number 43 compared to Malawi’s number 70 out of 167, there are similar issues faced by the press in both the United States and Malawi (Reporters Without Borders, 2017). Two similar issues are the cases of the Times Group in Malawi and the case of New York Times Co. v. United States (1971) in the United States. In both cases a government official attempted to use his power to prohibit the further publication of controversial information to the public. In The New York Times case, the court ruled in favor of the newspaper because, according to Justice Black, “the Government’s power to censor the press was abolished so that the press would remain forever free to censure the government,” (New York Times Co. v. United States, 1971). Similarly, in the Malawian case, the Times Group was allowed to continue publishing because the court believed it was a greater injustice to their people if they were to prevent the Times from remaining open. Just like in Malawi, there have also been physical attacks and assaults on journalists throughout the United States in recent years, both by protestors and police forces. Many reports of violence against journalists came from St. Louis after police used pepper spray and excessive force against student journalists and independent journalists in September 2017 during protests following the acquittal of police officer Jason Stockley who shot and killed Anthony Lamar Smith in 2011 (Taylor, 2017). Just like in Malawi, many journalists and activists in the United State are often faced with physical violence and intimidation while performing their jobs, from aggressive police forces to the possibility of physical detainment in prison, the issues journalists face in both countries are far from different.

Conclusion

After exploring the free speech and free press issues of the United States and Malawi, it is easy to see that these two democracies share a lot of similar issues among the treatment of their press and their access to information. In the United States, young student protestors rarely face physical assault and student activists are not murdered by a corrupt government like in Malawi, but U.S. citizens have been historically subject to censorship of their ideas by the government, and journalists have to face similar physical abuses in both countries. While Malawi is considered to be an underdeveloped and young country, it’s not all that far behind the United States in regard to freedom of speech and press, and there are currently changes being made to further expand those rights in the near future.

 

Bibliography

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Dionne, Kim Yi. (2017). New survey report raises alarms for freedom of speech in Malawi as protests loom. The Washington Post. Retrieved from https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/monkey-cage/wp/2017/12/08/new-survey-report-raises-alarms-for-freedom-of-speech-in-malawi-as-protests-loom/?utm_term=.ea682a688e47

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Gitlow v. New York, 268 U. S. 652 (1925)

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This essay was last updated on April 30, 2018.

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