Malawian President Peter Mutharika has apparently made good on threats made in 2016 to act against elements of the media that he accused of anti-government agendas after a clearly politically motivated crackdown on a leading media house for the old, overused excuse of tax arrears.
Last Friday, January13, Malawi Revenue Authority (MRA) officials and police forced the closure of the Times Media Group – a major Malawian media house with a reputation for poking the government bear – on the clearly trumped-up charges of tax arrears – a lesson apparently learnt from Zambian authorities who used a similar tactic to silence their critics last year.
The government continues to have a chilly relationship with elements of the country’s civil society, specifically the media, and there has been an apparent hardening of attitude on the part of the ruling party under Mr Mutharika.
Last November, Mr Mutharika suggested key elements of the country’s media were stepping out of line and our sources at the time said the most likely targets were radio stations and the Times Media Group, publishers of Malawi News, The Daily Times, Sunday Times and operators of Times Radio and Times TV.
Fast forward to January 2017 and the Times Media Group was indeed targeted by an increasingly frustrated regime unhappy with the group’s coverage of what has become known as ‘MaizeGate’ – a reference to a shady deal to purchase maize from Zambia.
The ins and outs of the deal are complicated and often disputed, but what seems clear and was pursued by the Times Media Group, among others, in a series of articles was that the state-owned Agriculture Development and Marketing Corporation (Admarc) was to purchase 100,000 tonnes of maize from Zambia in a so-called government-to-government deal.
However, local media began to report that in fact the deal was signed with a private Zambian company called Kaloswe Commuter and Courier Ltd and was not an inter-government contract.
Government denied this, but continuing reports of high-level corruption and a “stinky deal” plunged the transaction into ever-deepening controversy.
While Admarc continues to insist it was buying grain from the Zambia Cooperative Federation (ZCF), Malawian media have reported that Admarc was in fact using Kaloswe Commuter and Courier Limited. There are additional allegations of over-payment, enriched middlemen and over-pricing in order to repay loans: all leading to a media storm that the Mutharika regime has decided to repress.
On Monday, January 16, the Journalists Union of Malawi (Juma) slammed what it called the “invisible political machinations” behind the action by the MRA to seal the headquarters of the Times Media Group because of alleged outstanding tax payments.
Juma President Mtheto Lungu and Secretary General Charles Nkula said they saw the action as a desperate regime attempt to protect the battered image of the government.
“The authorities are using the state machinery in trying to muzzle the media group from further providing the local and international community with information regarding the belligerent purchase of maize from Zambia,“ Juma said.
The Nyasa Times reported that the Consumers Association of Malawi (Cama) Director John Kapito called the procurement process “stinky” and “humiliating” to the political leadership for its suspected corruption.
The Centre for Human Rights and Rehabilitation (CHRR), meanwhile, said the Anti-Corruption Bureau (ACB) should institute an investigation into reports of corruption in the purchase of maize from Zambia “as a matter of urgency.”
We do not believe for a moment that the reasons provided for the action against the Times Media Group are legitimate or credible and agree with most civil society voices in the country that the action is political.
There are two major issues of concern here and several adjunct ones. Firstly, there remains a clear reluctance on the part of the Mutharika government to act against corruption and, more specifically, to act against his allies in the cabinet who appear to have a case to answer as seems to be the situation here with the Minister of Agriculture, Irrigation and Water George Chaponda.
Secondly, the reaction of the regime is damaging its relationship with civil society, specifically the media, and its attempts to intimidate and harass critical voices are political risk negative.
The combination of those developments spells trouble for Malawi in regard to its overall political risk profile that has already slid backward under the Mutharika presidency.
The media crackdown and refusal to act decisively against corruption in government and state ranks is a recipe for disaster as it leads to increased repression and deteriorating governance – both of which are moving in the wrong direction.