Malawian journalist arrested over article accusing businessman of corruption

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Human rights watchdogs have condemned the arrest of a journalist in Malawi in connection with an article accusing a wealthy businessman of corruption.

Police in Blantyre detained Macmillan Mhone on Monday over a story that was published online last August on the Malawi 24 news site.

The 34-year-old reporter has been charged with “publication of news likely to cause fear and public alarm; cyber-spamming; and extortion” and released on bail.

Mhone’s story, which has not been taken down from the website, reported allegations that Abdul Karim Batatawala was operating a network of proxy companies to secure Malawi’s government contracts while he was awaiting trial on allegations of corrupt practices.

Batatawala is facing criminal allegations of fraud and corruption. He has pleaded not guilty to all charges against him. Mhone’s article included his denial that he had used proxy companies.

Mhone reported that Batatawala was arrested by the Anti-Corruption Bureau (ACB) in 2021 on suspicion of fraud and money laundering for the Malawi government.

In a statement, the Malawi police service public relations officer Peter Kalaya said Mhone had been arrested after a complaint by Batatawala that efforts had been made by the journalist to extort money from him.

But the deputy chair of the Human Rights Defenders Coalition, Gift Trapence, condemned the charges against Mhone.

Trapence said: “The rights of journalists must be respected, any attempts to suppress their freedom to report must be met with swift and appropriate condemnation.”

Mhone’s lawyer Joseph Lihoma questioned the police decision to take the journalist 200 miles from Blantyre to Malawi’s main police headquarters in the capital, Lilongwe, to charge him.

“There is no justification for the transfer. The prosecution could take place in Blantyre instead of hundreds of kilometres away,” he said.

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In a statement, the Malawi chapter of the Media Institute of Southern Africa (Misa) criticised both the arrest and the transfer from Blantyre.

“This conduct amounts to torture and deliberate attempt to intimate the journalist,” said Golden Matonga, Misa’s chairperson.

He said the article did not in any way cause fear or public alarm and demanded that the charges be dropped. “We believe that arresting and detaining a journalist over a story is a violation of media freedom and the public’s rights to know,” Misa’s statement read.

Undule Mwakasungula, a commentator on governance, said: “When journalists fear arrest for their reporting, it discourages investigative journalism and critical reporting. This could create a breeding ground for increased corruption, undermining the rule of law and human rights abuses.”

Malawi’s president, Lazarus Chakwera, has vowed to protect press freedom in the country. Last May he gave a speech saying: “It is after all stated in our constitution that 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.”

In April 2022, a reporter for the Platform for Investigative Journalism, Gregory Gondwe, was detained in an attempt to force him to disclose his sources in a story about allegations that the government was doing business with UK-based Malawian businessman Zuneth Sattar.

In February, this year, Gondwe went into hiding after threats from the Malawi Defence Force to arrest him over his article about allegations that millions of dollars were paid to a firm linked to Sattar while he was being investigated by the ACB and by the UK’s National Crime Agency. Sattar has not been charged and denies wrongdoing.


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