Investigative Journalist Gregory Gondwe has narrated his ordeal at the hands of the Malawi Police who stormed his office yesterday, arrested him and forced him to surrender passwords of his phones and computers which contain yet to be published investigative projects.
Gondwe’s crime was publishing a story containing legal opinion of the Attorney General who advised the Anti-Corruption Bureau to allow Malawi Police make payment to a businessperson whose contracts with government were earlier cancelled by the same Attorney General.
Gondwe is managing director of Platform for Investigative Journalism (PIJ) which recently has been publishing stories about corruption in awarding procurement contracts at Malawi Police, Department of Immigration and Malawi Defence Force.
Here is Gondwe’s story as published on his Facebook account.
“I will start with the irony to my story. On Monday the 4th this month, my kid sister was wanted by the police, and I was worried stiff for her.
My younger sister stays in Salima. So on Sunday the 3rd, she was in Blantyre where we briefly met after some phone call exchanges. By Monday, she was travelling from Lilongwe, where she had spent the night, to her base. At around 3pm and somewhere along the way, she got a phone call from Area 30 Police Headquarters.
She explained her situation, but was nevertheless told to alight from the vehicle she was using and that the officers of police will drive to the spot to meet her. The friends she was travelling with left her in the middle of nowhere with her 3-year-old daughter. She was afraid and promptly called to inform me about what had just transpired.
Later, her phones could not be reached. I panicked and wondered what had happened to her. I called several brothers of mine and we were all frantic.
But when she was finally back online around 1800 hours, she told me her phone battery died immediately after we had spoken.
Apparently the police officers interrogated her about my whereabouts. They seemed to be very blank about who they were looking for and lied to her that they were looking for me in order to lead them to a suspect.
I requested for the number of the officers that she interacted with and gave me one that I called without a second. At the end of the line the lady voice introduced herself as Detective Sub Inspector Molley Makomera from Area 30 Police. She again lied that she wanted me to help them provide information for someone they were investigating. I asked her how she got my number as well as that of my sister. She said she accessed my call logs from Airtel.
I told her that it was not a problem. All they need to do is liaise with their colleagues in Blantyre to meet and talk to me.
Now, my wife Edith has been under the weather and currently on bed rest at home. I had to rush to the office to get some stuff before picking up my daughters from school when a strange number called and introduced herself as a detective Maria Nyondo and said she had spoken to her colleague from Lilongwe and now wanted to talk to me.
But when they came to the office I was surprised to find out that she was in fact in the company of the Molley lady I had spoken to the night before and when I invited them into our offices, the Molley lady declined saying they wanted to be sure first on how I am going to react to the tidings they had brought with them from Area 30 and the perfect place to drop the bombshell was in their cruiser that had an ordinary number plate and with no police insignia on the doors.
It was while in their car that I was introduced to the applicant of the search warrant S/
Superintendent Henry Willy Kalungu (who at the Regional police offices in Chichiri where I was taken, everyone was calling him [Crime Suputu] Crime Supt). The other person in the vehicle was Superintendent Kamisa, apparently the Regional Head of Criminal Investigations.
They told me they had come for two things; to confiscate my electronic gadgets (laptops, phones and computers) as well as to ask me, to tell them, who my source was, that facilitated the publication of a story we published on March 30.
I told them I could not speak without my lawyer, while fully aware that this was a futile attempt that started with Attorney General Thabo Chakaka Nyirenda who had threatened to take this course of action when I could not tell him who my source was, prior to publishing the story.
The four officers then went up into the PIJ offices to ransack for the IT gadgets. They made me take them back to our website where the story was published and asked me to take screenshots. They also demanded passwords to my phone and laptop, which they took with them when they ‘hauled me’ (not literally) to police. They printed the screenshots and made me sign.
Perhaps at the point where we were supposed to start our journey to Area 30, I informed them that I will wait for my lawyer first. In fact before we reached the office, while we were still in the Land Cruiser, right inside the Police premises, the Kamisa dude played the bad cop and verbalised their memorised caution statement that ‘I was now arrested and anything I say would be used against me in the court of law blah blah’ in the presence of the Maria lady.
But when we were in the CID room, the other Good Cop act by Kalungu was on the tired line that I had not been arrested, but just detained for questioning. I told him your friend has already spelt out to me that I have been arrested and he suggested that the probable place to spend my time would be at Soche Police or at close by (meaning Chichiri Prison).
The officers left to have their lunch at (I overheard them mention the place severally) Manda Ambudzi in Makheta while I waited. The police say I was there for interviews, but I disagree. When the Crime Supu was leaving for his lunch, he charged one CID officer to keep an eye on me.
For whatever reason, my ‘handler’ also wanted to leave, but before he did, he left the post for another one to keep watching me, in case I decide to bolt. After spending three hours, I asked if I could visit the bathroom, but the officer (who was in charge of me) had to consult his superiors first. I was later taken to one of the broken toilets that was already filled with a mixture of faecal discharge and used toilet papers where I also added to the ghoulish mixture, my own urine, before being taken back to the CID room.
At around 1700 hours, my counsel came and the process restarted. The new thing that now happened this time round was that Kalungu wrote his statement and asked me to make mine, but exercised my rights to remain silent. At this point Kalungu said he will take the confiscated gadgets with him to Lilongwe’s Area 30 and will communicate once they finalise their investigations to proceed with the case.
What I see here is that the Government has deliberately handicapped my operations as head of the Platform for Investigative Journalism (PIJ). There are many investigative projects in the gadgets that they are going to snoop upon. These gadgets are running lives these days. They link me to all my bank accounts for my financial transactions and I wonder what will happen. As I write, we are trying to apply through the court for the return of the said confiscated gadgets and it’s my sincere conviction that the situation won’t escalate to levels of dirtiness.
The demands from the police are unattainable. There is no way a journalist can divulge details about his/her sources to anyone else. That will be the death of journalism. I know the AG would agree with me.
At this point, I want to emphasize that just half the battle is won. If confiscating phones and laptops is the new way to deal with journalists, as the new way to force us to reveal sources, then we don’t know the people presiding over us over there.
I, PIJ and my family would however like to thank all organisations and individuals who have come out to speak strongly about what transpired. A special mention to the social media fraternity (the noise you made was felt).
But I emphasize that the battle is not yet over until my personal effects are handed back as soon as possible. I will keep you all updated.”
Meanwhile, Police have released Gondwe’s gadgets.
However, the arrest of one of Malawi’s renowned investigative journalists has received condemnation from civil society organizations, human rights groups and Embassies of the United Kingdom and United States.
Malawi Human Rights Commission has since said that it will investigate the arrest and how Gondwe was treated under Malawi Police custody.