The Nyasa Times, an online newspaper allegedly published in the United
Kingdom by Malawians, has come under fire for publishing a false story
alleging that president Bingu wa Mutharika had suddenly fallen
seriously ill and is in a coma, writes Sam Makaka for journalism.co.za.
Quoting an unnamed cabinet minister and state house security personnel as their sources, the Nyasa Times alleged that doctors from South Africa had been flown into the country to attend to the president and preparations were underway to fly him out of the country.
SMSÃƒÂ¢Ã¢â€šÂ¬Ã¢â€žÂ¢s quickly spread the story around the country. The story appeared two days after the Malawi Electoral Commission had disqualified the former president, Bakili Muluzi from standing as presidential candidate for his United Democratic Party (UDF) because, they said, the constitution does not allow someone to stand again who has already served two terms as president.
A day before the publication of the story, Mutharika had also postponed the launch of the election campaign of his Democratic Progressive Party, citing heavy rains as the reason. Malawi is due to hold general elections in May.
These factors are being seen as possibly having led to the publication of the story by the Nyasa Times. The online newspaper is allegedly being funded by Muluzi, who has for five years now been campaigning for the removal of Mutharika and to return to power.
The two main media organizations in Malawi, the Media Council of Malawi (MCM) and the National Media Institute of Southern Africa (Namisa) held a joint press conference in Lilongwe on the issue two days after the publication of the story.
The Media Council of Malawi said it condemns ÃƒÂ¢Ã¢â€šÂ¬Ã…â€œin its strongest termsÃƒÂ¢Ã¢â€šÂ¬Ã‚Â the report.Ãƒâ€šÃ‚Â ÃƒÂ¢Ã¢â€šÂ¬Ã…â€œWe call on the Nyasa Times to desist from publishing articles aimed at causing false alarm and unnecessary panic in the social, political and economic sectors of Malawians. The online publication should not position itself as propaganda machinery bent at destroying the perceived enemies.ÃƒÂ¢Ã¢â€šÂ¬Ã‚Â
A statement presented at the media conference ends with a warning to Malawi journalists who contribute stories to this online news channel. ÃƒÂ¢Ã¢â€šÂ¬Ã…â€œMCM would like to warn all local journalists who may be contributing sensational articles to this online newsletter to discontinue discrediting the journalism profession. The MCMÃƒÂ¢Ã¢â€šÂ¬Ã¢â€žÂ¢s Ethics, Complaints and Disciplinary Committee will be compelled to discipline those journalists once discovered to be violating the agreed code of ethics,ÃƒÂ¢Ã¢â€šÂ¬Ã‚Â concludes the statement, signed by Patrick Semphere, MCM National Governing Council chairperson and Alaudin Osman, interim chairperson of Ethics and Disciplinary Committee.
In his remarks Namisa chairperson, Brian Ligomeka said: ÃƒÂ¢Ã¢â€šÂ¬Ã…â€œThe malicious story by the Nyasa Times is a threat to media freedom because it can provoke government wrath.ÃƒÂ¢Ã¢â€šÂ¬Ã‚Â
There has been no direct reaction from Government except a live broadcast by the president on state TV and radio, amid the rumours, where he addressed issues mostly pertaining to the general elections in May and also gave reasons for the postponement of the campaign launch for his party. He did not react to the report in the Nyasa Times.
The Nyasa Times has since withdrawn the story from the website and issued an apology.
ÃƒÂ¢Ã¢â€šÂ¬Ã…â€œAn article purported to say President Bingu wa Mutharika was in ill health and its related materials published on Nyasa Times website have been removed form the site because they relied heavily on information that was not credible.
ÃƒÂ¢Ã¢â€šÂ¬Ã…â€œThis story was written based on information by a cabinet minister and corroborated by State House officials including security officers who have regularly and routinely provided credible information.
ÃƒÂ¢Ã¢â€šÂ¬Ã…â€œJournalists who correspond with Nyasa Times and even those who work for other media houses also corroborated the story.
ÃƒÂ¢Ã¢â€šÂ¬Ã…â€œNyasa Times regrets the anguish and whatever issues the story has caused to the President, His Excellence Ngwazi Dr Bingu wa Mutharika, our readers and the people of Malawi. The story is unreservedly retracted.ÃƒÂ¢Ã¢â€šÂ¬Ã‚Â
Reacting to these allegations State House press officer, Chiku Mtumodzi said: ÃƒÂ¢Ã¢â€šÂ¬Ã…â€œWe are aware that these fugitive writers who know nothing about journalism are being funded and abused by Bakili Muluzi to be fabricating lies and publish them world wide to try to fool the international community so that they develop a negative attitude towards the government of Dr Mutharika, something they have clearly failed to achieve.ÃƒÂ¢Ã¢â€šÂ¬Ã‚Â