The High Court of Malawi has dismissed a bid by businesspersons Zuneth Sattar and Ashok Nair to stop local media houses from publishing stories on investigations against them for alleged fraud and corruption.
In their application without notice to the respondents, Sattar as first claimant and Nair as second claimant sought a court order to stop Nation Publications Limited (NPL) as first respondent and Blantyre Newspapers Limited (BNL), now trading as Times Media Group, as the second respondent.
They argued that allowing the two media houses publish stories on the investigations would be prejudicial and may end up being “defamatory” should the two be cleared. NPL publishes The Nation, Weekend Nation and Nation on Sunday while BNL publishes The Daily Times, Malawi News and The Sunday Times.
But in his judgement dated November 18 2021, High Court Judge Mike Tembo dismissed the application, saying it was a threat to freedom of speech and freedom of the press as enshrined in the country’s Constitution.
He said: “This court wishes to stress that an interim injunction can only be granted in this matter against the alleged potentially defamatory matter if this court is satisfied that a plea of justification must fail.
“In the present case, there is no allegation that the defendants want to make false publications against the claimants.”
The duo is under investigation by the Anti-Corruption Bureau (ACB) in collaboration with Britain’s National Crime Agency over the award of multi-million dollar public contracts to their firms.
Tembo observed that from the facts presented in court, journalists from the two media houses were only seeking to get a comment from the claimants about the ongoing investigation by the ACB. In this regard, he said the fears of the claimants failed to meet the threshold for granting an injunction that would gag free speech and a free press.
The judge said the public interest in the reporting by the press on this matter outweighed the claimants’ personal interests they sought to protect through an injunction.
Sattar is also being investigated in respect of the same allegations in the United Kingdom where he currently resides.
On November 1 2021 the ACB issued a restriction notice to Malawi Defence Force and Malawi Police Service restricting them from dealing with contracts awarded to some firms, including Xelite Stripes Limited, Xavier and Mallachite FZE linked to the claimants.
Meanwhile, the media has hailed the court ruling as a milestone in safeguarding press freedom and the public’s right to know.
In an interview last evening, Media Institute of Southern Africa Malawi Chapter chairperson Teresa Ndanga said the trend of seeking court protection from media coverage of suspected crimes was worrisome, especially at a time the country is championing access to information principles.
In a separate interview, University of Malawi senior lecturer in Media and Communication, Jimmy Kainja, observed that gag orders against the media may be new in Malawi, but do happen elsewhere. He said the onus is on the affected media houses to challenge such orders.
On why the gag orders tend to target the print media, he said it is because of the influence the medium exudes over electronic media and other platforms.
Kainja said: “It is interesting, but perhaps not surprising that the injunction is only against NPL and Times and not electronic media.
“Newspapers may have limited circulation, but the print enjoys the trust of the public, they influence policy more than electronic media.”
But he advised the media to guard some crucial stories to prevent “enemies from within” from leaking them to outsiders who use that as the basis to seek gag orders.
Another media scholar, Jolly Ntaba of the Malawi University of Business and Applied Sciences, said while everyone has the right to seek legal redress, the basis of the application was wrong because the media houses in question have gatekeeping processes to guard against defamation and prejudice to onpoing cases.