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Malawian journalist Macmillan Mhone facing false news, extortion charges

By Committee to Protect Journalists - Africa
Malawi Nation Publications Limited journalist Macmillan Mhone is accused of cyber spamming, publishing false news, and extortion. Photo: Courtesy of Macmillan Mhone
MON, 15 APR 2024 LISTEN
Nation Publications Limited journalist Macmillan Mhone is accused of cyber spamming, publishing false news, and extortion. (Photo: Courtesy of Macmillan Mhone)

Lusaka, April 15, 2024 – Malawian authorities should drop all legal proceedings against Nation Publications Limited journalist Macmillan Mhone, who is accused of cyber spamming, publishing false news, and extortion, and ensure that journalists can work without the fear of arrest, said the Committee to Protect Journalists on Monday.

On April 7, Chester Chikumbutso Doba, a detective in the Malawi Police Service’s Cyber Crime Unit, summoned Mhone to appear for questioning the following day at a police station in the commercial capital of Blantyre, according to a statement by the Malawi chapter of the regional press freedom group Media Institute of Southern Africa (MISA), news reports, the journalist, and his lawyer Joseph Lihoma, who separately spoke to CPJ via messaging app.

Mhone was questioned and arrested at the Wenela police station in Blantyre the following day in connection with two articles published August 2023 by the privately owned Malawi24 news site, which alleged police involvement in corruption with a local businessman according to those same sources. Mhone worked with Malawi24 until March 27, 2024. Mhone told CPJ that police transferred him on April 9 to police headquarters in the capital of Lilongwe, about 186 miles from Blantyre.

“I was treated like a criminal when I was being taken to Lilongwe,” the journalist said. “Police handcuffed me as though I was going to run away when I handed myself over to them on Monday [April 8].”

Mhone said Doba questioned him for the first time at police headquarters, also in connection to his August 2023 Malawi24 reporting. The police informed Mhone that he was facing charges of publishing false news, likely to cause fear or public alarm, extorting the businessman, and cyber spamming unspecified persons.Prosecutors are expected to prepare a formal charge sheet to be presented in court, according to Lihoma. Mhone was released later that day.

“Macmillan Mhone’s arrest points to authorities’ intolerance for reporting that sheds light on allegations of corruption involving the security services,” said CPJ Africa Program Coordinator, Muthoki Mumo, in Nairobi.“Instead of targeting journalists, authorities in Malawi should spend their time investigating those allegations. The cybercrime, extortion, and false news charges leveled against Macmillan Mhone must be dropped without delay.”

If convicted of publishing false news Mhone faces up to two years in prison and/or a fine at the discretion of the court, while an extortion conviction carries up to 14 years in prison, according to Malawi’s penal code. The cyber spamming charge includes a 2,000,000 Malawian kwacha (about US$1,150) fine and imprisonment of five years if found guilty, according to section 91 Malawi’s Electronic Transactions and Cyber Security Act.

The police seized the Mhone’s mobile phone soon after his arrest and handed it back to him the morning of April 10, the journalist and Lihoma separately told CPJ. It is unclear whether police searched the mobile device.

According to Mhone’s bail document, the journalist is scheduled to appear in court in Lilongwe on April 23, 2024, for the spamming and extortion charges. Lihoma told CPJ that it was unclear why the bail document does not mention the publication of false news charge.

Mhone is the latest Malawian journalist to be targeted by authorities in connection with reporting on alleged corruption. In February, investigative journalist Gregory Gondwe fled Malawi over fears that he would be arrested in connection with his coverage of alleged military dealings with a businessman under investigation for corruption, according to a CPJ statement at the time and news reports. In 2022 Gondwe was arrested for several hours, also in connection with corruption reporting.

Detective Doba refused to comment when reached by CPJ via messaging app, referring all queries to Malawi Police spokesperson Peter Kalaya. Kalaya promised to return CPJ’s calls but did not. Kalaya also did not respond to written requests for comment sent via text message and messaging app.

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