Malawi charges three journalists seeking to cover EU delegation’s return: CPJ
New York - Malawian authorities should drop the prosecution of three journalists who wanted to cover the return to the country on January 8 of a European Union (EU) electoral observer mission but were instead detained for two hours at Kamuzu International Airport in Lilongwe, the capital, and charged with disorderly conduct, the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) said on Sunday.
Three journalists from the privately-owned Nation Publications Limited (NPL) and Zodiak Broadcasting Station (ZBS) were at the VIP section of the airport to cover the arrival of the delegation, who were due to present their final report on the disputed May 21 election, according to media reports, the CPJ said in a statement.
“The arrival of the EU delegation was of public interest and for airport police to detain and charge the journalists is unacceptable, given that they were not committing a crime. We urge Malawian authorities to drop the charges immediately and not waste the court’s time on a frivolous case,” CPJ Africa program coordinator Angela Quintal said in the statement.
Golden Matonga, an investigative journalist but also reporting on current affairs for NPL, told the CPJ via messaging app that he had gone to the airport to cover the visit by the delegation at a time the country’s constitutional court was expected to hand down a judgment on the disputed presidential election.
Both Malawi’s Law Society as well as the opposition leaders who had challenged the presidential election result in court said publishing the report was ill-timed because the court had yet to rule on the matter.
Matonga was asked for his press credentials by the EU security team and the Malawi police and complied. While the EU team was happy for him to cover the delegation’s arrival, the local police told him he was not able to take photographs or work there, as he did not have permission to do so. Matonga also described his experience in a post on his blog.
When ZBS editor-at-large Steve Zimba and his cameraman Francis Chamasowa arrived they were told the same thing, said Matonga.
“We argued that the area was a public space and journalists conduct interviews there all the time.” However, a senior policeman ordered that the trio be arrested and they were held in a police cell at the airport for two hours, said Matonga.
Zimba told the CPJ via messaging app that when he and Chamasowa arrived at the VIP lounge he was taken aside and asked to accompany a police officer.
“Since the flight had already touched down ... I resisted, as I wanted to talk to the EU delegation,” Zimba said. The officer then harassed and insulted the journalists. The officer was then joined by about 30 other police officers in uniform and civilian clothes who too began “showering insults on us”, said Zimba.
One of the police officers received orders on the phone to arrest them. Their equipment was confiscated, their footage deleted, and they were locked in a police cell in the airport, he said.
Police first charged the trio with “conduct likely to cause breach of the peace,” according to Zimba. After the journalists were taken to the criminal investigation department, the charge was changed to disorderly conduct under the Aviation Act, said Zimba. They must appear in court on January 18.
Malawian police spokesman James Kadadzera told the CPJ via messaging app that the three journalists were detained by airport police for “disorderly conduct at an airport contrary to the Aviation Act”, because they had not sought the necessary permission to “cover airport activities”.
“The arrests were effected as a result of the three journalists’ failure to follow protocol in line with the Aviation Act. They did not have the necessary permit in terms of regulation 12 of the Aviation (Airport Security) Regulations, said Kadadzera.
“It is not the wish of airport police to apprehend or arrest media practitioners whenever assigned to carry out official duties,” he said, adding that police were committed to maintaining a good working relationship with the media.
African News Agency (ANA)