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Malawi23 March 2005

Two journalists to be charged with "causing ridicule" to president

Reporters Without Borders voiced dismay at yesterday’s announcement by Malawian director of public prosecutions Ishmael Wadi that an additional charge of "causing ridicule" to President Bingu wa Mutharika will be brought against two journalists who were arrested on 15 March for reporting that he abandoned the presidential palace in Lilongwe for fear of ghosts.

BBC correspondent Raphael Tenthani and Mabvuto Banda, a reporter with the privately-owned daily The Nation and a contributor to Reuters, were already charged with "publishing false news." They were freed on bail on 16 March.

17.03.2005 - Authorities free two journalists who reported president’s fear of ghosts

BBC correspondent Raphael Tenthani and Mabvuto Banda, a reporter with the privately-owned daily The Nation and a contributor to Reuters, were released on bail yesterday but still face charges of "publishing a false story likely to cause public fear," their lawyer, Ian Malera, said. They have not so far had to pay the bail or appear in court, but they are required to report to the Blantyre police station once a week.

15.03.05 - Two journalists arrested for saying president heard ghosts

Reporters Without Borders today called for charges to be dropped against two Malawian journalists who were arrested yesterday for reporting "false news" after they quoted an aide to President Bingu wa Mutharika as saying the president had abandoned his official residence because he believed it was haunted.

"This has come like a thunderbolt out of a clear sky," the press freedom organization said. "In a case without precedent since Mutharika was elected president in May 2004, two journalists have been arrested at dawn and thrown in prison because of his wounded pride."

Reporters Without Borders added: "We call on the president not to use the police and judiciary as tools to vent his anger on the press. This regrettable affair must be settled as quickly as possible and, to that end, the charges against the two journalists must be dropped."

The two journalists are BBC correspondent Raphael Tenthani and Mabvuto Banda, a reporter with the privately-owned daily The Nation and a contributor to Reuters. Following their arrest at home in Blantyre early yesterday, they were taken to police headquarters in Lilongwe (the administrative capital, 320 km to the north) and detained there. Agence France-Presse quoted Tenthani as saying they were charged with "publishing false news."

Like many international news media, the two journalists quoted the president’s religious affairs adviser, Rev. Malani Mtonga, as saying Mutharika had left the presidential palace because he kept hearing "strange noises" and "felt a strange presence hanging around him" at night. An anonymous source close to the president confirmed the story.

President Mutharika denied the reports on his return from a visit to the European Union’s headquarters in Brussels, saying he had "never been afraid of ghosts." He also implied that the journalists concerned had been bribed by the opposition to harm his image. Rev. Mtonga also denied ever making such statements to the press. At the same time, vice-presidential adviser Horace Nyaka was arrested and charged in the case, apparently because he was believed to have been the anonymous source.

The original reports had prompted critical editorials urging President Mutharika to pay less attention to the palace and focus on such priorities as the country’s endemic poverty. A former World Bank economist, President Mutharika had decided in December 2004 that the extravagant palace built by former dictator Kamuzu Banda should be restored to its original function. Since the return to democracy in 1994, the 555-hectare complex had housed the parliament.

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