Malawi's President Bingu wa Mutharika last week threatened to shut down newspapers that "tarnish" his government's image, according to news reports.
The president, who was speaking at an agriculture show in the capital city of Liongwe, seemed to be referring to a story in the privately-owned Malawi News Daily, reports said. The story quoted a report from the Southern African Development Community (SADC), an economic organization of southern African states, which said over a million Malawians will need food aid following a drought.
"I will close down newspapers that lie and tarnish my government's image," Mutharika was quoted by AFP as saying. "If I close you down, you'll rush to donors to say Bingu is suppressing the press."
"I will be forced to close down your newspapers and if any donor dares say something, you can go away," Mutharika was quoted by Reuters as saying.
The president's outburst came as a surprise to Dr. Tikhala Chibwana, the general manager of Blantyre Newspapers Limited, which owns the Malawi Times, because, he said, the article was factually correct. The piece, entitled "One million Malawians face hunger says SADC," notes that "with the surpluses recorded nationally, government and donors should be able to source food for humanitarian assistance from within the country."
"Yes, we will have pockets where people will not have food, although on a national level we have a surplus," Chibwana told IPI by phone from Blantyre, Malawi's commercial capital. "To me the issue is not that the report was incorrect or that they were exaggerations or that it meant to make the country look bad. This is a SADC document and one would think that the ministers or heads of states that are members of the SADC would have an opportunity to correct these reports if they are not accurate."
"We are worried by President Mutharika's outburst against the Malawian media," said IPI Press Freedom Manager Anthony Mills. "It is troubling that the president should threaten to shut down newspapers for any reason, let alone for having reproduced information from an official report."
Added Chibwana: "It is scary for some of us because we are three years or so from the general elections and normally things get quite hot, with accusations that media are favouring one party or another. As we draw closer to the elections we predicted that there would be friction between the media and government, but we didn't expect it would begin so soon."