Malawian president Bingu wa Mutharika [BBC profile] has signed into law a bill permitting the government to ban media outlets that its information ministry declares contrary to public interest. The new law, which amends the 2009 penal code amendment bill, has already drawn heavy criticism from regional media watchdogs, such as the Media Council of Malawi (MCM) [official website] and the National Media Institute of Southern Africa in Malawi (NAMISA) [official website], which charged that the bill gives political allies of the president unchecked authority to exercise arbitrary regulatory power of the African nation's media. NAMISA has also argued that the law is unconstitutional under Section 36 of the Malawi Constitution [text], which stipulates that "the press shall have the right to report and publish freely, within Malawi and abroad, and to be accorded the fullest possible facilities for access to public information." Free press advocates have asked Mutharika to agree not to use the new authority in an abusive fashion and urged the Malawian Parliament [official website] to refrain from advancing bills that would run counter to the principles of a free democracy.
Mutharika has had a rocky relationship with the press during his time in office. In November 2010, the Malawian government threatened [Nyasa Times report] the publishers of the Malawi Daily Times [official website], Blantyre Newspapers Limited (BNL), with a ban on advertising sales after one of their five publications ran stories covering sex scandals involving national celebrities and socialites. The government had already banned the publication of BNL's Weekend Times, which ran several such stories, for the paper's failure to register with the nation's national archives, a violation that critics charged was a pretext. In August 2010, his administration threatened [Reuters report] to shut down news outlets and refuse aid and donations from foreign organizations and governments after several papers reported on a British study that suggested more than a million people in Malawi were in need of food aid. In July 2009, to the alarm of free pres advocates, Malawi police in the capital of Lilongwe arrested [IFEX report] the editor of privately-owned Zodiak Broadcasting, Gabriel Kamlomo, on charges of causing public panic by broadcasting what police said was untrue information about a murder case. Station representatives told NAMISA that police accused Kamlomo of criticizing police for the lack of an investigation. Kamlomo was acquitted [IFEX report] in December 2010.