In the beginning he saw contrasts.
“There is Mangazi Village in Thyolo District near Ndata Farm owned by Malawi fallen leader Bingu wa Mutharika.
“The village has no potable water yet is sits adjacent to Ndata Farm with plenty of piped water for cattle to drink,” he says.
And he knew contrasts make a big story. So he packed the armsâ€”a pen, a pad, a recorder and a cameraâ€”and set out.
But even as he set off, Montfort Media journalist Ernest Mahwayo knew the sensitivity of the story.
Mahwayo was going close to Mutharikaâ€™s mansion and mausoleumâ€”the two multi-million structures to which he wanted answers to how they had been built.
But Mahwayo, a journalist working in a country with a Constitution that guarantees press freedom, felt the sensitivity would not be an issue.
He thought the spirit of the Constitution would help him accomplish his mission. It did not.
Instead of ending up in Mangazi Village talking with locals, he found himself in a police cell arguing with police officers. He had been arrested for allegedly taking pictures of Mutharikaâ€™s private home.
And according to then spokesperson for Southern Region police Dave Chingwalu, he was charged for conduct likely to cause breach of peace. Breach of peace?
“They never gave me a chance to express myself. They arrested me right away in the village not near Ndata for simply doing a story.
“After the arrest, they put me in police cells together with the hard core criminals. These criminals ill-treated me the worst.
“They [criminals] ordered me to give them K2 000 for me to secure a space where I could stand. I was beaten up by these criminals in the presence of the police officers,” says Mahwayo.
“I was arrested while my wife was heavily pregnant. This affected her psychologically. According to medical reports, the child was to be born on around 12 September [last year]. Unfortunately, the pregnancy prolonged for a month. It was quite a critical moment for me and my family.
“I was about to go to Europe for studies. It failed to work out. The courts had confiscated my passport. My work, too, was affected. I created a lot of enemies from government side as well from the DPP gurus. My life was in danger and I could not walk freely,” he says.
Detained for two days, the ruling of his case, according to his lawyer Lusungu Gondwe, is on 30th June 2012.
Mahwayoâ€™s story depicts the realities the media goes through in the quest to enlighten and socialise the public.
It is a story that serves a reminder that in dozens of countries around the world, journalists, editors and publishers are harassed, attacked, detained and even murdered; while publications are censored, fined, suspended and closed down.
On the 2011-2012 Press Freedom Index by Reporters without Borders, Malawi fell 67 places to rank 146 because of what the Index termed â€˜totalitarian tendenciesâ€™ of the late president Bingu wa Mutharika.
Indeed, since January last year, the media in Malawi has persevered untold shocks, carefully crafted strategies to choke its lifeblood.
The worst came when Parliament amended Section 46 of the Penal Code. The section empowers the minister to ban any publication deemed to be against public interest.
And there was more. During this period, Nation Publications Limited (NPL) has seen the ban on government advertising for allegedly being critical of the late Mutharikaâ€™s fallen government. Zodiak Broadcasting Station has had its vehicles petrol-bombed on two occasions.
Some deemed critical of the fallen government received untold waves of death threats.
NPLâ€™s Phillip Pemba received death threats over a story that revealed that the late Robert Chasowa, a Polytechnic engineering student who died on campus, had dealings with the police before his death.
So, too, did Malawi Institute of Journalism (MIJ) reporter Joseph Mwale, who was arrested over an alleged recording of Professor Peter Mutharikaâ€™s political views.
Radio Maria reporter Branzio Chingwalu met the same fate over a follow up story on former first lady Callista Mutharika when she claimed people in villages need not worry about fuel scarcity because they have no vehicles.
Government interference in the media is not unique to the Mutharika regime. During the Bakili Muluzi era, Blantyre Newspapers Limited also suffered an advertising ban which NPL suffered in recent years.
Of course, these cases do not mean there is no press freedom in Malawi. There have been some strides since the country adopted democracy in 1994.
However, the above example pose worrisome trends; like stains on what is supposed to be a white sheet of press freedom. These stains symbolise an oppressive environment that militates the mediaâ€™s call to enlighten and socialise effectively.
Interestingly, framers of the countryâ€™s Constitution envisaged these challenges. This explains the reason they devoted Section 36 of Constitution to guarantee freedom of the press.
It reads: “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.”
Malawi is also a signatory to a number of regional and international protocols that aim at safeguarding press freedom.
The question is: Why does Malawi, in the face of all these legal instruments, still register worrisome trends on its press freedom charts?
“We have fundamental challenges in the media that time has not addressed,” says Levi Zeleza Manda, media researcher and lecturer of Journalism at the Polytechnic.
Most of them, he adds, are legal.
“The Access to the Information Bill is still failing to become law despite the pressure the public has exerted on Parliament. Our Communication Act invests so much power in the President and the ministers. We need to change that.
“Look at how MBC works. The President just decides, at a blink of an eye, the person to occupy the office of the director general. Without interview, how does the President determine the effectiveness of the chosen person?” he says.
Manda also took a swipe at the practising journalists.
“We need to change our mindset. The country belongs to us all. We should refrain from pushing personal agenda at the expense of the nation,” he says.
Mandaâ€™s insights are quite enriching. However, to bear fruition they depend on how the new government will break from the traditions of the past.
National Media Institute of Southern Africa (Namisa) chairperson Anthony Kasunda says there is general lack of respect for the provisions of the Constitution and the media has been the victim.
“Good laws are there but adherence by those in authority has been a problem and that is why we have been complaining of deliberate attempts by government to violate press freedom.
“As a country, we need to stick to constitutionalism. We also need to move a step further by striking off some of colonial pieces of legislation. We have moved from those days to independent and another step to a democracy. We need not to keep some of the laws that are in conflict with the provisions of the constitution,” says Kasunada.
New Information and Civic Education Minister, Moses Kunkuyu, is giving reason to hope.
“As a new government, I know Malawians expect a break from how things were done in the past. This government, I can say, will commit itself to press freedom.
“As government, we understand the importance of press freedom in democracy. We reckon the importance of a healthy working relation between government and the media,” he says.
Interestingly, Kunkuyu acknowledges the concerns the media has in the country.
“On Friday this week, I will be meeting with different media bodies to open doors of dialogue. I hope a number of issues will come out and a new beginning will be charted from the meeting,” he says.
Surely, a new beginning is a must. As we celebrate Press Freedom Day on May 3, it is important to realise how staggering Malawiâ€™s journey is to press freedom. A new beginning will help to sober up the journey.
It is from a new beginning where journalists will go deep, unrestrained, in digging stories of public interest. Even if it is near a presidentâ€™s private farm.