Press freedom groups and the U.S. and British еmbassies in Malawi have expressed concerns after police interrogated an investigative reporter over his sources and confiscated his equipment.
Gregory Gondwe says police held him for four hours Tuesday in a failed attempt to get him to reveal his sources. Gondwe had published a story in March about the government’s alleged secret dealings with a businessman who is on trial for corruption
The arrest of Gondwe, who works with the Platform for Investigative Journalism, came after Malawi’s Attorney General Thabo Chakaka Nyirenda announced he would take action against those who leaked a document meant for the Anti-Corruption Bureau.
According to the document that Gondwe used in his story, published March 30, it appeared that Nyirenda allowed the government to make payments to the corruption suspect, Zuneth Sattar.
That move runs counter to Nyirenda’s actions in January, when he publicly terminated all of Sattar’s contracts with the government and restricted any payment on the same.
In his story, Gondwe said the government had secretly paid millions of dollars to Sattar’s company, Malachite FZE, to procure eight anti-riot water cannons for police.
Gondwe told VOA Wednesday the police were demanding that he reveal how and from whom he got the documents.
“They [police] said the story was factual, all they are trying to find out is the source, which is something that cannot happen in journalism,” Gondwe said. “The moment I am going to give them my source, it’s the death of journalism. So, from the word go, I told them that ‘this is a futile attempt from your side because you are not going to get anything from me.’”
Tereza Ndanga, chairperson for the Media Institute for Southern Africa in Malawi, told local radio the arrest contradicts the government’s claim of respecting media freedom in Malawi.
“It’s quite unfortunate that we seem to be going backwards, that is really going backwards, instead of really moving forward,” she said. “We currently have the Access to Information law, in which one of the provisions is that journalists are protected from revealing their sources.”
In a joint statement Tuesday, the U.S. and British embassies in Malawi condemned the move and asked police to immediately return the confiscated equipment to Gondwe and respect any private information found there.
James Kadadzera, assistant commissioner for the police, told VOA Wednesday that police did not arrest the journalist.
“Mr. Gregory Gondwe was not arrested by the police,” he said. “In fact, he was invited to Southwest police region headquarters for an interview on the ongoing investigations police are conducting regarding an online news story that was published by an organization where Mr. Gregory Gondwe was working for.”
But Gondwe, who was released four hours later, said he doesn’t believe it was an interview.
“Because when they took me to the police, they kept me in the criminal investigations department room,” he said. “At one time I asked to go to the bathroom, but before they could even release me, the officer that was guarding me asked permission first.”
Police unconditionally released Gondwe Tuesday and returned his equipment Wednesday.
Kadadzera said police might interview Gondwe again if they feel they need to.
Government spokesperson Gospel Kazako said in a statement the government welcomes the release of Gondwe and that it fully subscribes to the values of free independent media.
Gondwe said the statement smacks of double standards and that the government seems to be contradicting itself.