Malawi Police on Wednesday stopped opposition Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) interim leader Peter Mutharika from addressing the party’s supporters on his return to Blantyre after his release on bail in Lilongwe last Thursday.
DPP supporters, who turned up at Lunzu Trading Centre in Malawi’s commercial city, Blantyre, returned home Wednesday afternoon disappointed after police refused to allow Mutharika to address them. Mutharika has been charged with treason alongside other DPP officials and former top civil servants.
DPP has reacted angrily to the police action, warning that the party will write a “very strong” letter to the international community and local human rights organisations for being denied a right to freedom of expression.
But Minister of Information and Civic Education Moses Kunkuyu, official spokesperson of the government, said DPP did not seek permission and, as such, it was going to be an unlawful gathering.
He said police were unable to plan security measures in the absence of the notice; hence, they stopped the DPP leaders from addressing the party followers.
Southern Region Police spokesperson Nicholas Gondwa said police earlier on Wednesday reasoned with DPP supporters that gathered at Kamuzu Stadium upper ground to disperse because the party did not seek permission from the Blantyre City Council (BCC).
The party had planned to address supporters along the M1 Road starting from Ntcheu to Blantyre, but were only able to address one gathering at Chingeni Turn-Off, having been barred at the first point of call, Ntcheu, according to the party’s regional governor (South) Noel Masangwi.
A visibly charged Masangwi said in an interview upon arrival in Blantyre: “We are very bitter with government’s action. In our time, as a ruling party, we never stopped anyone from exercising their freedom of expression.
“Our leader simply wanted to greet his followers after his release from police custody and they decide to stop us. This is unbelievable and utter infringement on our constitutional right.”
Ironically, when DPP was a ruling party and commanded a majority in Parliament, they were busy changing or twisting some laws, including those related to freedom of assembly and expression.
On the freedom of assembly, which simply required those seeking to hold meetings to notify a district commissioner (DC), DPP argued that those intending to hold meetings required not only to notify the DC’s office, but also to seek permission.
Some planned political meetings by opposition parties then, were forcefully broken up on that basis whereas DPP moved on with its meetings freely.
The late Bingu wa Mutharika went as far as ordering that people seeking permission to demonstrate should deposit K2 million (about $5 555) to cover for any possible damage to property. It was never effected.
On the freedom of expression, DPP, using its majority in Parliament, amended Section 46 of the Penal Code, effectively empowering a Minister of Information to ban a publication, local or international, if in the minister’s opinion such publications were not in the interest of the public. Media houses risked simply being shut down based on this draconian law which the Joyce Banda administration has since repealed.
Newspaper vendors also claimed that DPP operatives harassed them when selling newspapers that were deemed offensive to the regime.