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Journalists ordered to report to police in 14 days, presidential aide released unconditionally

(MISA/IFEX) - On 16 March 2005, the Malawi police unconditionally released a vice-presidential aide and granted bail to two prominent journalists who had been arrested the previous day.

Mabvuto Banda, of "The Nation" newspaper, and Raphael Tenthani, of the BBC, were arrested after they wrote articles alleging that President Bingu wa Mutharika was not spending nights at the State House because it was haunted by ghosts. Vice-presidential aide Horace Nyaka was arrested on suspicion of having conspired with the two journalists to write the stories.

Banda, Tenthani and Nyaka were charged with "publishing false information that is likely to cause [a] breach of peace".

Nyaka was released after a meeting, at noon on 16 March, with the director of criminal investigations at the national police's headquarters. Banda and Tenthani were released the same day, at 6:30 p.m. (local time), after meeting with the police inspector general (IG) at police headquarters. They were ordered to report to the Blantyre police station in 14 days.

Legal experts have predicted that the government will not pursue the matter as they do not have a strong case against the defendants.

According to Banda, the IG said the police would question the presidential advisor on religious affairs, Reverend Malani Mtonga, who is said to have admitted to conducting special prayers to cleanse the State House of ghosts. In statements made to MISA-Malawi, also known as the National Media Institute of Southern Africa (NAMISA), Mtonga vehemently denied having told the journalists that he was conducting prayer sessions of that nature at the State House.

The Malawi Human Rights Commission (MHRC), a government human rights body, has applied to join the case as an interested party in order to protect the journalists' rights. The court advised the MHRC to join when the trial begins.

Several political parties and civil libertarians have condemned the arrests and have asked the government to drop the charges.

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