Malawian authorities should immediately drop defamation and cyber-related charges against Maravi Post journalist Dorica Mtenje and allow her to report free from legal harassment, the Committee to Protect Journalists said Wednesday.

On February 8, police in the capital Lilongwe summoned Mtenje via phone to appear the following day for questioning over a Maravi Post story she did not write or publish, according to news reports, a statement by the Malawi chapter of the regional press freedom body Media Institute of Southern Africa (MISA), a bail form that CPJ reviewed, and a CPJ interview with the journalist. When Mtenje arrived at the station the next day, police detained her for 12 hours and charged her with defamation and offensive communication following a complaint by National Intelligence Service Director General Dokani Ngwira.

“The detention, confiscation of her phone, and charging of Malawian journalist Dorica Mtenje following a complaint from the country’s intelligence chief about an article that was not bylined and that she did not write is a fishing expedition to intimidate the press,” said Angela Quintal, CPJ’s Africa program coordinator, in New York. “We urge Malawian authorities to immediately drop the charges against Mtenje and ensure that criminal defamation is repealed, in the same way that sedition and insulting the president are no longer crimes in Malawi.”  

On February 18, President Lazarus Chakwera assented to the Penal Code (Amendment) Bill of 2022, which repeals the crimes of sedition and insulting the president.

On February 9, Mtenje appeared at police headquarters in Lilongwe at around 8 a.m. and was formally charged and detained at about 5 p.m., according to a news report and the journalist. Mtenje said her mobile phone was confiscated but returned upon her release three hours later.

Her supervisor, Lloyd M’bwana, was also summoned for questioning over the same story but he did not appear, according to MISA, Mtenje, and M’bwana, who spoke to CPJ. M’bwana told CPJ he did not go because he did not receive an official summons, only a call from police.

Mtenje is charged with offensive communication, under to Section 87 of the Electronic Transactions and Cyber Security Act, and defamation, under Section 200 of the country’s penal code.

If found guilty of offensive communication, Mtenje faces up to a year in prison or a fine of 1 million Malawian kwacha (US$975), while the defamation charge carries an undefined fine, a two-year imprisonment, or both.  

Mtenje told CPJ that she appeared before police on her own and was not accompanied by a lawyer. 

“I asked the officer why they summoned me after showing me the story I didn’t even write, but I was told they suspect that me and my boss could have written it,” Mtenje told CPJ. “They took away my phone…at some point, one officer went away with it. It has no password.”

Information Minister Moses Kunkuyu told CPJ he had secured Mtenje’s release and that her case was “closed.” However, the officer who handled the matter claimed to be unaware of the closure after her release, according to Mtenje.

When reached by CPJ via messaging app, Ngwira said he had not made any complaints against a journalist, but he alleged thata tabloid had been writing “lies against my person and the National Intelligence Service without even a single attempt to seek our side of whatever they write.” 

Ngwira said a police investigation was what led to the summoning and arrest of Mtenje. “I believe they are still investigating, and even for her to be released quickly was because MISA Malawi through their [chairperson] reached out,” he told CPJ.

Malawi Police Service spokesperson Peter Kalaya did not immediately respond to CPJ’s request for comment sent via messaging app. He is quoted by the MISA statement as saying police were only acting on a complaint by the National Intelligence Service Director.