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Protection of political speech in Malawi: Regime under siege

News of the withdrawal of criminal charges against Manes Hale, popularly known on social networks as Abiti Manice, represents a surprising, if not a welcome, pivot by President Peter Mutharika’s government from his well-publicized plan to terrorize his political opponents who hold and propagate political views he doesn’t like or finds personally hurtful.

Dr Danwood Chirwa: Law scholar

We don’t know what triggered the about-turn or whether the entire policy of intimidation by the ruling party has been abandoned. Nevertheless, the arrest of Manice was as ill-advised as it was an abuse of power: it is a move that should not have happened, should not be repeated, and for which all those who participated in it ought to be held accountable by law and politically.

It is well known that the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) uses ethnicity, violence and plunder of state resources—criminality in short—as key political instruments in the service of the unjust enrichment of a few. Manice’s arrest sought to add a further layer to the criminal politics that defines the party.

The arrest was a direct response to the threat issued by the President at a rally broadcast to the whole nation that he would unleash a tonne of bricks on those who criticize or ridicule him. From his speech, it appears that he was particularly angered by the use of the word ‘mtchona’ by his political opponents against him. It also appears that he does not like his opponents to refer to his age in their political campaigns.

The use of either or both of these words doesn’t warrant his threat. Even if it did, law enforcement agencies have the constitutional duty to enforce the law without interference from anyone, including the President. It is a mark of a lawless state when law enforcement officers act upon a president’s threat of arrest against political opponents in connection with political speech given in the heat of an electoral season.

Malawi is a democratic state in which political speech is sacrosanct, protected by the various political rights and freedom of speech guaranteed by the Constitution. These freedoms were won after years of struggle, first, against the colonial establishment and then, against the one-party state. These rights and freedoms form the foundation of our political system: They are designed to facilitate free exchange of political ideas on any subject, unrestrained by threats, violence or intimidation.

People have infinitely different ways of expressing and propagating their political briefs, views and ideas. Some use satire, others poetry, music, humour, soaring oratory, emotive speech, vituperation and invective. Whether one is rude, petty, personal, impolite or disrespectful towards political opponents in the way he or she advocates his or her political views doesn’t disqualify political speech from constitutional protection. No forum is more suited to free speech than the political theatre. It is up to the electorate to judge matters of decorum, integrity and respect in the conduct of political campaigns. The government machinery has no business adjudicating these issues or policing the lines of decency in political speech.

With specific reference to the President’s complaint that his opponents call him ‘mtchona’, it is in fact a relevant consideration in all elections worldwide whether one is sufficiently rooted in the country he or she seeks to represent at the highest level of government. If one has lived outside a country for too long, the electorate, let alone other contestants, are entitled to ask whether the person is sufficiently versed with its affairs or committed to serving them. The manner in which this question is raised could be satirical, or border on the invective, but that doesn’t diminish its relevance.

On the other hand, living outside one’s country for a long time can be an advantage that a candidate could exploit. One could tout the exposure and world experience one gains as advantages that should militate in his or her favour. That the President is unable to demonstrate why his decades of sojourn overseas make him a better candidate perhaps proves that he did not actually learn anything from there worthy of note.

What has been said above about the use of ‘mtchona’ plies similarly to the issue of the President’s age. The demands of high political office require a fit and proper person to discharge them. They also require significant life experience. Younger candidates always face this problem – lack of experience and wisdom.

It appears that the President is unable to formulate a political platform which extols his experience and wisdom. His opponents are however entitled to exploit the downside of old age in their political campaigns especially if the President isn’t performing as expected and does not seem to be in control of the affairs of the government.

The point about political speech, actually, is that it doesn’t matter whether the political views one holds are relevant or not. If they are relevant, then the electorate is entitled to consider them. If they are not, then the electorate will consider them so and ignore them. It is critical that the political space is as free and possible, and that the electorate is given the space to judge and assess candidates as they appear to and interact with them.

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