A law that makes it illegal to “undermine the authority of or insult the president,” is outdated in democratic Malawi and should be outlawed, human rights defenders and lawyers have said citing concern for freedom of speech after President Peter Mutharika threaten to use it.
President Mutharika on Saturday warned his deputy Saulos Chilima, former first lady Callista Mutharika and other United Transformation Movement (UTM) gurus against attacking him, threatening to invoke Section 4 of the Protected Flag, Emblems and Names Act against his critics.
“I want to warn [Vice-President Saulos] Chilima, [Noel] Masangwi, [Patricia] Kaliati and Callista Chapola [Mutharika. I want to warn you, don’t push me around. You better stop what you are doing.
“There are laws in this country about describing a President. If they don’t stop, I am going to drap on you like a tonnes of bricks, and I mean it… I am tired of this nonsense,” said Mutharika in Mzuzu.
Human rights defenders, legal experts say the regulation undermined freedom of expression and the law is outdated not suitable in a democratic environment.
Prosecutors would be overzealous about charging individuals who remark about President Peter Mutharika in consuming halls and different social locations including on Facebook following the President’s threats, observed the rights defenders.
They argue that freedom of speech means citizens including political competitors have can criticize and even poke enjoyable comments at each other and would be ridiculous to criminalize such actions.
Governance expert and human rights activist Makhumbo Munthali told Nyasa Times that the President’s threats have no space in the democratic dispensation.
“In fact, the laws which APM [Mutharika] wants to use are outdated and in conflict with the Constitution and freedom of expression as such they will certainly be challenged in Court if applied,” Munthali said.
If used, critics say the law will further erode the sliding popularity of President Mutharika ahead of next year’s polls.
Malawi Law Society (MLS) president Alfred Majamanda shared Munthali’s sentiments, saying if Mutharika invokes the Section 4, would be a “step backward” for freedom of expression.
He, nonetheless, cast doubts that the courts may uphold the “draconian law.”
Lawyer Justin Dzonzi as one of the commissioners of the Malawi Human Rights Commission (MHRC) has said the law which the President wants to use to silence his critics is “unconstitutional” despite being in the statues and that courts can review the archaic Section.
“It has not space and place in the democratic set-up,” said Dzonzi.
Immediate past Malawi Law Society president Mwiza Jo Nkhata, who is also associate professor of law at University of Malawi’s Chancellor College, said it would be “misuse of powers” is the President invoked his powers to use the controversial section for gagging his opponents in a country that subscribes to democratic values.
State House said not everyone who spoke out would run foul of the law, saying those who want to keep the government in check for the public interest will not be criminalized.
But if the criticism amounts to slander, that President can seek protection from the laws of the country.
Section Four of the Protected Flag, Emblems And Names Act, which provides penalties for anyone who does any act or utters any words or publishes or utters any writing calculated to or liable to insult, ridicule or to show disrespect to or with reference to the President.
Attorney General Charles Mhango said the law was still part of the country’s statues and that democracy does not entail a licence to insult leaders.
The law was previously used to convict opposition leader late Gwanda Chakuamba who attacked former president late Bingu wa Mutharika. He was not sent to jail due to his advanced age.
Politicians Hophmally Makande was also prosecuted on the same law and in trying to punish firebrand polititician Kamlepo Kalua the law was used when he called Bingu “ka Ngwazi”.Follow and Subscribe Nyasa TV :