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Malawian journalist and activist Gregory Gondwe is on the run. He is being hunted by police and military police after publishing an exposé on a questionable – and substantial – payment made by that country’s defence force to a firm implicated in corruption. The payment was part of a larger deal secured for the purchase of 32 armoured personnel carriers.

Malawian-born businessman Zuneth Sattar, writes Gondwe, the recipient of the $4.98-million payment, is currently under scrutiny for alleged corrupt practices. Gondwe has seen a document confirming the payment.

In a statement published today on Facebook, the journalist says sources within the military urged him to go into hiding. “This isn’t just about legal threats, which I was prepared to face head-on. Yesterday, top government officials confirmed that the MDF [Malawi Defence Force] intended to ‘arrest’ me for allegedly ‘endangering state security’. This is a a vague and ominous accusation,” he writes.

“Given the potential for my situation to be ‘accidentalised’ with a seemingly plausible explanation posthumously, I’ve heeded the advice to protect myself. In this line of work, death can be disguised as an accident, and no hospital can revive a life once lost.”

Claiming to fight corruption

President Lazarus Chakwera took office in June 2020 and has made a lot of noise about bringing to book those who were involved in corruption, especially civil servants. He said his government would have “no mercy on those who were involved in the plunder of government finances”. Furthermore, those with unexplained wealth would have their assets frozen for investigation.

He seemed to be making good on those promises, with the arrest in November 2022 of his deputy Saulos Chilima, who appeared in court on several charges of corrupt dealings by a public officer, and of using influence regarding contracts. South Africans have never seen an official of such a high rank, or even a cabinet minister – especially those implicated in state capture – held to account, despite their own government’s frequent theatrical proclamations about tackling corruption.

However, “This development raises questions about the Malawian government’s commitment to combating corruption, especially in light of the ongoing investigations surrounding Sattar,” writes Gondwe. “The direct involvement of the MDF in this transaction, despite the broader context of corruption allegations, underscores a complex scenario in Malawi’s efforts to uphold integrity in public procurement and defence dealings.”

Civil society groups in the country have issued a statement condemning the intimidation tactics of the Malawian police service and military against Gondwe and his fellow whistle-blower Mercy Matonga, and calling for an immediate halt to these nefarious activities. They also demand respect for the fundamental right to freedom of expression.

“This revelation casts a stark light on the government’s contempt for transparency, accountability, and the very essence of the rule of law. Gregory is alleged to be in hiding for fear of his life,” says the statement.

Journalists targeted

Gondwe is one of many journalists threatened and victimised because of their commitment to exposing corruption.

Back in 2017 we published an article discussing the risks that journalists and activists expose themselves to when fighting corruption.

In that year alone, said Reporters Without Borders (RSF), 63 journalists and 12 media workers were killed, with dozens more victimised and hunted. In 2023, according to the organisation, 45 journalists and two media workers were killed. RSF points out that journalists are listed only if their death or imprisonment is confirmed to be linked to their journalistic activity.

“The list does not include journalists who were killed or imprisoned for reasons unrelated to their work or when the link to their work has not yet been confirmed.” So there may be more who have just not been added to the list.

At the time of writing this article, says RSF, 525 journalists and 25 media workers are imprisoned. In 2024, five journalists have already lost their lives.

The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) has similar statistics – 75 journalists and media workers killed in 2017, and 93 in 2023.

Of course, the situation existed long before 2017 and in the intervening years it has not improved. The Israel-Gaza war is likely to cause a spike in the numbers, with Israel recently identified by the CPJ as one of the “world’s leading jailers of journalists“.

Meanwhile the corrupt all over the world carry on with impunity, and the journalists and media workers who toil to expose them carry on regardless, too.

“Despite the personal risks, I remain committed to my journalistic duties,” writes Gondwe. “If we don’t hold those in power accountable, Malawi risks becoming a nation bankrupted by the greed of its politicians. I’ve witnessed some, including fellow journalists, mock my predicament. Some may underestimate the threats I face, believe they’re superior in their journalistic endeavours, or are perhaps compromised by the system themselves.”

He adds that his commitment to the truth is the way he serves his country, and it is “non-negotiable”.

Arms deal

Gondwe’s dangerous situation brings to mind South Africa’s own highly controversial and questionable arms deal, which has never been resolved to the satisfaction of the public or civil society. A commission of inquiry, established in 2011 and chaired by judges Willie Seriti and Hendrick Musi, inexplicably found no evidence of corruption in the many dubious dealings that characterised the multi-billion-rand transaction.

Corruption Watch and the Right2Know Campaign challenged the Seriti report in court, and in August 2019 succeeded in having it reviewed and set aside. Seriti and Musi appealed the decision, and lost. Furthermore, the two judges are now the subject of a potential investigation, by the Judicial Services Commission, into their conduct regarding the inquiry.

However, to this date not a single implicated person has been held to account. Former president Jacob Zuma is fighting desperately to avoid having to answer in court to corruption charges stemming from the arms deal and has been doing so for over a decade. Even the lone associate who found himself behind bars for fraud and corruption relating to the arms deal, managed to wangle his release in a short time.

Zuma’s corruption trial is still in limbo after yet another failed appeal, this time the Supreme Court of Appeal’s (SCA) dismissal in October 2023 of his application against journalist Karyn Maughan and advocate Billy Downer, as part of his private prosecution of the two. The judgment was handed down electronically on Friday, 13 October 2023, via by e-mail to the parties’ representatives, publication on the SCA’s website, and release to the South African Legal Information Institute.

In his determined quest to avoid facing the music, Zuma is likely to approach the Constitutional Court next. “At the bar in this Court, we were informed that a petition to this Court will follow [the petition that the SCA dismissed in October after a previous application for leave to appeal the main judgment was dismissed by the high court on 11 September 2023] and, if that fails, an application will be made to the Constitutional Court for leave to appeal,” the October judgment reads.