Jailed Malawi journalist Collins Mtika set free, for now

Collins Mtika

My friend and journalist colleague in Malawi, Collins Mtika, was released from jail yesterday.

I took notice of Collins’ arrest last week thanks to Sika Holman (here is her blog on the Malawi protests). I tweeted about it, emailed about it and eventually wrote about what little I knew — that Collins had been taken away by the police for doing his job, covering public protests.

He wasn’t the only journalist in Malawi detained, or beaten up, by the police. But he’s the only one I know there.

I talked to him today after his release. Here’s a report on his release from the Malawi Democrat.

Collins said he was jailed for four days and nights, in a cell crowded with others– some bleeding from gunshot wounds, some sick with diarrhea. It was too crowded to lie down in so he basically went four days without sleep. Very hot. No toilet. No food provided (see his graphic description below).

Collins was detained without charge by the police for doing his job — covering protests against the government. This was in the northern city of Mzuzu.

“They never charged me but I was told I was being held for writing stories critical of the government,” he told me by telephone yesterday.

The people of Malawi are not the only ones critical of their government. Today, the U.S. government announced it was suspending aid to Malawi because of concern about human rights abuses.

Malawi is uneasy these days.

It is a poor country and people are upset with the government of President Bingu wa Mutharika. There have been violent protests, with 19 deaths. President Mutharika is likewise upset with the protesters, recently calling them “sons of Satan” and vowing to “smoke them out.” Many activists are now in hiding, the BBC reports.

Not Collins. He plans to continue to report on the unrest and the problems, knowing this puts him at risk.

I want people to pay attention to what’s going on in Malawi, and to journalists like Collins Mtika.

I worry what will happen if we don’t.

Every once in a while, we hear about an American journalist who is arrested, abused or even killed when covering a story overseas. My former colleague at the Seattle PI, Dorothy Parvaz, recently made headlines across the world when she was arrested in Syria and held captive.

These episodes involving U.S. or European journalists often get a lot of coverage, in part because it is hoped publicity will force the authorities abusing journalists to let them go free, unharmed.

But how much attention gets paid when this happens to the journalists who live and work in dangerous countries — where they are seen as enemies of those in power. They have families there and no safe haven to return to if “the story” gets too hot. They risk jail, beatings or worse.

What Collins and his journalistic colleagues are doing in Malawi, trying to give voice to those who are challenging an increasingly oppressive and autocratic government, is simply courageous.

I hope we will, at least, pay attention.

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Malawi’s potential meltdown is not yet getting much media coverage, but there is some good work being done by the BBC, CNN and others (easily located using Google News).

There’s also an interesting, more personal, blog from Malawi I learned about from the blog Texas in Africa. This is Kim Yi Dionne’s blog haba na haba.

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Here are Collins’ answers to some questions I sent him after we talked:

Where were the protests you were covering?
The protests were nationwide but I was covering those in the northern City called Mzuzu, where I live. The protesters composed of some off duty soldiers, villagers, youths, women and in fact people of all lives.

What were the protesters doing or saying? How did the police react to the protesters?

The protesters had initially gathered at Katoto Freedom Park, which is roughly the size of a football stadium, where they were waiting for an announcement to start demonstrations to Civic Offices (where the City Boss operates from) to deliver a petition. But the problem is that they could not proceed with the march because the President had obtained a court injunction stopping the march. All people were wearing anything red as a symbol of displeasure. They were chanting anti-government and anti-President Bingu wa Mutharika songs calling for a new government. Their leaders tried to reason with them that they should wait because some lawyers were applying for a counter court injunction so that the march should proceed but the protesters who had placards and banners with messages ranging from the lack of foreign currency, the soaring unemployment, persistent shortage of fuel, lack of medicines in government hospitals, deteriorating socioeconomic conditions, the rapidly disappearing democracy, human rights and the rule of law started marching onto the main route of the march. At this point the police, who numbered about 60 against more than 600 protesters, started firing tear gas and rubber bullets to disperse the crowd. It worked for few minutes because they (protesters) treated to Katoto Freedom Park but regrouped and re-mobilised. They confronted the police armed with stones and started pelting the police. At this point the Police run away and the mob divided its self others found their way into Mzuzu City CBD were they looted shops belonging to Chinese nationals. N.B. there is a feeling here that the Chinese have been responsible for externalizing much of the country’s foreign currency to China. The other group went to the Democratic progressive Party (DPP) offices where they torched a vehicle and ransacked the offices. Three pick up trucks belonging to the DPP were burnt. But at the end of all this nine people had been short dead.

Please describe in more detail your time in jail. The size of the cell. No bed? Food? How were you treated?

I was thrown into a cell measuring 1.5m by 2m which had an average of more than 40 people at any given time. Inmates included small children aged 10 to 14 years, who were caught with goods suspected stolen from the looted shops. Some had fresh gun shot wounds on the legs and hands. The cell built by the British in the 1940s had too small vents on top near the roof. I only had space of about the size of my feet (size 11) to stand, squat or sleep. I was surrounded by bodies that reeked of sweat, urine, and excreta since they are no toilets. For urinal an old 5 litre (castrol oil plastic container) was left in the cell for all to use. And when it was full it took more than two hours of shouting to draw the attention of the Police to empty it. So those who could not control themselves relived themselves where they standing. A man with diarrhoea had twice to use plastic bags to relive him self and spewed the faecal matter over the two small vents but the smell still lingered for long. The room was also very hot about 38 degree whether its day time or night. Inmates always asked for water in two litre bottles and this was being shared by all (although they had not washed their mouths for days or even take a bath because such luxuries are non existent). Food is not provided but relatives are asked to bring food for you. Small boys who had no communication with the outside world usually scrambled for small pieces of bread.

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If you would like to, go into greater detail about what has caused people to protest, what they want.

People have been angry about these issues: Lack of foreign currency, soaring unemployment, persistent shortage of fuel, lack of medicines in government hospitals, deteriorating socioeconomic conditions, the rapidly disappearing democracy, human rights

Are you concerned about continuing to write about these issues? Is there a risk of further arrest? Please describe.

I will continue but I will change the byline. As long as President Bingu wa Mutharika is President of this country, the risk of writing about these issues increases by the day.

Tell more about yourself.

I was born in Malawi but bred in Zimbabwe where my parents worked in the mines. I did my primary and secondary school education up to ‘A’ levels in Zimbabwe before trekking back with his parents to Malawi after the mines where closed. I am married with a wife and two children aged 12 and 7 years. My wife works at a hair salon. I have a certificate in Journalism from Pen Point School of Journalism, a certificate in Mental Health and Counselling, a certificate HIV and AIDS reporting, a Diploma in Journalism from Agrrey Memorial College backed by almost 14 years of demonstrated experience in both print and electronic media.

I have worked for Malawi’s biggest newspaper publishing company, Blantyre Newspapers Limited that publishes, The Daily Times, Sunday Times, Malawi News and The weekend Times where I was Bureau Chief for the Northern region. I also worked for the tri-weekly publication The Guardian as a Chief Reporter. I have corresponded for IPS (AFRICA) and currently am the Executive Editor of NorthernLife Magazine and Bureau Chief for NyasaTimes, Malawi’s popular online newspaper.

Collins Mtika


 

 

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Tom Paulson

Tom Paulson is founder and lead journalist at Humanosphere. Prior to operating this online news site, he reported on science,  medicine, health policy, aid and development for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. Contact him at tom[at]humanosphere.org or follow him on Twitter @tompaulson.