Malawian professors fight for academic freedom

(Photo: RNW/ Michelle Dobrovolny)

The police interrogation of a Malawian professor over comments made in a lecture has left the country’s academic community outraged.

Professors at the country’s two main universities are refusing to return to work until the Inspector General of police apologises and the government guarantees that their academic freedom will be protected. The government, however, has defended the interrogation, saying police were only acting in the interest of national security.

Roughly 350 protestors marched through the university town of Zomba in southern Malawi today in protest of government’s refusal to guarantee academic freedom. The march was peaceful, despite fears of clashes between police and protestors.

“In previous demonstrations, the police were heavy-handed, even when they were not violent,” says Dr. Blessings Chinsinga, the Malawian professor who was interrogated by police last February. “There is some hope that this is a sign that we are heading towards resolution of this stalemate.”

The march for academic freedom

The march marks the 100th day of the standoff between government and professors. The staff union went on stike after Chinsinga said he was accused by police of “inciting the students to demonstrate like in Tunisia and Egypt” and threatened with arrest.

Jessie Kabwila-Kapsula, president of the Chancellor College Academic Staff Union, says professors won’t return to the classroom until their fears over police harassment are allayed.

“The government has chosen to handle this situation by insulting us in public and blaming the victim,” she says. “But academic freedom is protected in our constitution and you can’t negotiate the constitution.”

A government spokesperson was unavailable for comment at time of writing. In public statements to media on this issue, Malawian President Bingu wa Mutharika has remained adamant that police were in the right:

“If some teacher one day just wakes up, ignores the subject for that hour and comes and says, ‘“You students, do you know that you can overthrow this government? And the way to overthrow this government is to follow what’s happening in Egypt”’… Is this what we call academic freedom?”

A Reminder of Oppression

Academic freedom is a particular sensitive issue in Malawi, where professors and students were often jailed for expressing criticism under the 30-year dicatorship of Kamuzu Banda. In 1983, law professor Edge Kanyongolo was imprisoned for over a year as a 21-year-old student.

“We were detained for 15 months without a trial. Simply because we expressed our ideas,” says Kanyongolo. “If this kind of thing is allowed now, we are going down a slippery slope.”

The present dispute over academic freedom is just one of several issues that have caused criticism of the Malawian government as of late. Earlier this year, the country’s penal code was amended to allow government to ban newspapers. This past month, President Mutharika severed ties with the United Kingdom – the top donor to the impoverished country – after a memo was leaked in which the British High Commissioner described the president as “ever more autocratic and intolerant of criticism.”

“We are dealing with a regime that is highly unpredictable,” says Dr. Chinsinga. “They have committed blunder after blunder and there is no sign of letting up.”

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