Section 7 of the penal code states that ignorance of the law does not afford any excuse for any act or omission which would otherwise constitute an offence unless knowledge of the law by the offender is expressly declared to be an element of the offence. It is, therefore, almost futile for one to raise the defense of ignorance of the law in court.
That as it may be there are some offences that ordinary Malawians are committing because of the language and the scarcity of the Penal Code.
Noone can underestimate how the translation of the Bible into local languages has helped promote morality in our society. If you ask any Malawian why it is wrong to kill a human being, to legalise homosexuality and other crimes, they will give biblical reasons. They may not be able to cite the verses but certainly they will assure you that the Bible says it is wrong.
All this is because they might have either read it and understood it in their language or someone has told them in the language they heard it properly and committed it to memory.
The translation of the bible into local languages has made ordinary Malawians realise the do’s and the don’ts according to the will of God. It is, therefore, clear that converting a message in a language that people understand can help people to commit such messages to memory and practise them.
There are some offences in the penal code that Malawians commit without realising that such acts are crimes. This is because such acts are written in a language that an ordinary Malawian cannot understand even if the Penal Code can be given to him. The main argument of this article is that it is time the government should embark into a project and translate the penal code into local languages. It is unfortunate to be dragged before the judge and be lectured of the offence you have committed.
Take, for example, the following offences: Section 84 talks about fighting in public, it is an offence rightly. When people are fighting, some regard it as a source of entertainment and start cheering. This in law is incitement and such people may be dragged to court with those who were fighting. Drag them before the law and they will be suprised defending themselves that they were not taking but only cheering.
Section 112 is even more complicated. It states that any person who (a) publicly offers a reward for a return of any property which has been stolen or lost, and in the offer makes use of any words purporting that no questions will be asked or that the person producing such property will not be seized, shall be guilty of a misdemeanour.
How many times have you seen such adverts in newspapers? Imagine dragging such people to court; all they will tell you is that all they want is a return of their property.
How many times have you heard some soccer fanatics betting on the public radio on the outcome of a derby game? They even stake a house, money and even a vehicle yet Section 170 of the Penal Code states that this is an offence. If you drag such people to court, they will definitely be surprised to learn that this is an offence. There are several of such offences in the Penal Code.
This is, I daresay, contrary to what the Constitution provides in Section 42(1)(a) that every person who is detained , including every sentenced person shall have the right to be informed of the reason of their detention promptly and in a language they understand. That initiative must start with understanding the Penal Code in your own language.
If missionaries have managed to translate the Bible into local languages, certainly the government can do the same with the Penal Code. It may not bring the crime levels down but certainly it will help to improve morality in our society.
It does not help to be taken to court and be lectured by the judge of the nature of the crime you have committed. It wastes courts’ time and it is unjust to the accused. It leaves the accused with little facts to defend himself because of limited time.
Government should, therefore, embark on a project and translate the Penal Code into local languages that people can understand. n