27 July 2011

Journalists arrested and attacked, media censored

Severe fuel shortages, rising prices and high unemployment sparked two days of protests in Malawi last week - one of the largest anti-government demonstrations in sub-Saharan Africa in 2011. At least 18 people were killed and dozens wounded in clashes between riot police and demonstrators. Several reporters were beaten and detained by police, while the government banned radio stations from covering the demonstrations, report the Media Institute of Southern Africa (MISA), Reporters Without Borders (RSF), Human Rights Watch and the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ).

Protests were organised by civil society groups calling attention to bad governance and poor international relations. This year, Britain, Malawi's biggest donor, indefinitely suspended aid to the country after a conflict over a leaked embassy cable that referred to President Bingu wa Mutharika as "autocratic and intolerant of criticism," reports "The Guardian". The leak led to the expulsion of Britain's ambassador to Lilongwe. A coalition of 80 groups claim Malawi is "facing its worst shortages in 47 years of independence and is turning into an autocratic kleptocracy."

The country is also dealing with shortages of foreign exchange, resulting in strict controls on the export of hard currency and creating problems for businesses that need foreign currency to pay for imports, say news reports.

Malawi is one of Africa's poorest countries, with 72 percent of Malawians living on less than US$2 a day.

Deeply frustrated protesters demanded the resignation of President Mutharika, a former World Bank economist who was first elected in 2004.

In response, authorities clamped down on attempts to report on the unrest, to conceal security forces' excessive use of lethal force during largely peaceful demonstrations. CPJ notes that the protests were originally authorised by police but later banned by court injunction.

Malawian rights activists told Human Rights Watch that security forces fired live ammunition and tear gas at unarmed protesters, killing a number of protesters in Lilongwe, Blantyre and Mzuzu, the country's three main cities. At least 250 protesters were arrested. Some rioters started burning, destroying and looting businesses and property belonging to allies of President Mutharika and his party, apparently in reaction to police efforts to stop the protests.

Police assaulted and briefly detained reporter Kingsley Jassi of private media group Blantyre Newspaper Limited after he took photos of officers beating a man, report RSF and CPJ. Another police officer beat freelance journalist George Thawe with the butt of a gun six times. Independent "Nation" reporter Kondwani Munthali told CPJ he was among a group of nine journalists who were beaten by police in a church in Lilongwe. A few journalists suffered severe head injuries. Others remain in detention without charge.

According to MISA, the state-run Malawi Communications Regulatory Authority (MACRA) banned all private radio stations from broadcasting live coverage of the demonstrations in the interest of national security. Radio coverage was vital to informing the public about security conditions, said MISA.

Journalists covering events leading up to the scheduled demonstrations were also targeted, report CPJ and MISA. About seven armed, masked men stopped a Zodiak Broadcasting Station (ZBS) vehicle on 17 July, half a mile outside the station's office in a suburb of the capital, Lilongwe. The driver and reporter were ordered out of the car and the assailants smashed the back window and body. The next night, masked men set fire to a ZBS vehicle at the station. Local journalists suspect ruling Democratic Progressive Party supporters coordinated the attacks since ZBS had given coverage to civil society groups who were organising protests.

Furthermore, gangs of machete-wielding pro-government youths drove in pick-up trucks with the ruling party insignia around the commercial city of Blantyre on 19 July, trying to intimidate potential protesters, says CPJ.

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