Taxi operators, sex workers, pupils hold separate protests related to COVID-19 restrictions, journalist assaulted by police for asking to feature them in a COVID-19 report
On 26th January 2021, minibus and taxi operators who had suspended services took to the streets in Lilongwe to protest the increased price of fuel and restrictions imposed on the number of passengers allowed in public vehicles, a measure taken to curb the spread of COVID-19. Clashes were reported between police and protesters during the protests, while similar protests were also reported in Mwanza, Blantyre and Zomba.
In another protest also related to COVID-19 restrictions, on the 29th of January it was reported that sex workers in Lilongwe gathered in the streets carrying pamphlets to protest against police brutality. According to the protesters, some COVID-19 restrictions, such as the imposition of an 8 pm curfew on bars, had made them particular targets of the police, who often sought them out during curfew hours and beat them up. The protesters, led by the Female Sex Workers Association (FSWA), also said that the country’s COVID-19 restrictions, particularly the night curfew, was negatively impacting on their work and called on the government to adjust the restrictions to allow them to continue with their business.
Similarly, on 1st March 2021, pupils in Lilongwe took to the streets to demand the re-opening of schools which were closed in January 2021 after the country’s COVID-19 numbers began to soar. Although the government later ordered the re-opening of schools, this was yet to be done as defiant teachers demanded to first be given a risk allowance before resuming their duties. The protesting students wore their school uniforms and blocked the streets using rocks and branches, prompting the police to disperse the protests using tear gas.
On 22nd January 2021, a group of police officers attacked journalist Henry Kijimwana Mhango in Lilongwe, a correspondent for The Telegraph and BBC Africa Eye, after he asked if he could feature them in a story he was preparing on COVID-19. According to Mhango, the attack happened after he approached one of a group of officers who were beating people for not wearing face masks, asking him whether he could take pictures of them. The officer instead called him stupid and began beating him with a pipe, after he apologised and began to leave. About six other officers joined in the attack where they all beat him up with sticks and pipes. It was only after another officer intervened that Mhango was able to run away from the scene.
CPJ’s sub-Saharan Africa representative Muthoki Mumo said:
“Authorities in Malawi should investigate and hold accountable the police officers responsible for beating journalist Henry Kijimwana Mhango… Journalists are far too often attacked for reporting on the enforcement of COVID-19-related restrictions. The pandemic is difficult enough for journalists without having to worry that they will be assaulted while on the job.”
The Media Institute of South Africa’s Malawi chapter also condemned the attack and expressed concern at the continued assault of journalists in the line of duty by police officers. The Deputy Inspector General of police, Demster Chigwenembe, apologised for the incident and promised to take up the matter to identify those culpable.
Protests are common in Malawi and large numbers of citizens have taken to the streets on a range of issues, including to speak out against corruption and calling for a more equitable distribution of resources.
Protests are common in Malawi and large numbers of citizens have taken to the streets on a range of issues, including to speak out against corruption and calling for a more equitable distribution of resources. Although there is no specific legislation that governs the organisation of demonstrations, the Police Act 2009 requires protest organisers to provide authorities with 48 hours’ notice. The Act requires authorisation for demonstrations within the precincts of Parliament, a State Residence, or a court. In practice, police forces have used excessive force, including live ammunition, to disperse protestors. In 2014 for example, the police shot and killed one demonstrator who was calling for a recount of votes in the presidential elections.
Freedom of expression is constitutionally guaranteed in Malawi.
Freedom of expression is constitutionally guaranteed in Malawi. However, this right is limited by other laws, including the Protected Flag, Emblems, and Names Act which prescribes prison terms for insulting the president and various national symbols. Defamation remains a criminal offense in Malawi. Violence and harassment against journalists were common under the administration of President Bingu wa Mutharika, but has decreased under subsequent governments. The Access to Information (ATI) Law was finally approved by Malawi’s Parliament in December 2016, and signed by the President in February 2017, after many years of civil society advocacy. There are no major restrictions on the internet; however, accessibility remains limited for many due to high costs.