July 22 (Bloomberg) -- The U.S. condemned the use of force by Malawi’s police to break up anti-government protests in the past two days, and warned the government against a crackdown on the free press.
Eighteen people were killed when security forces confronted protesters in the towns of Blantyre, Lilongwe and Mzuzu, Henry Chimbali, the spokesman for the health ministry, said by phone today. At least 44 people are being treated for gunshot wounds in Mzuzu, Amnesty International said, calling for an investigation into the police response.
The Malawi Communications Regulatory Authority switched off three private radio stations -- MIJ FM Radio, Joy FM Radio and Capital Radio -- to stop them from reporting on the protests, according to the Media Institute of Southern Africa, Malawi Chapter.
“The government’s attempt to prohibit its citizens from marching, and the Communications Regulatory Authority’s ban on independent media coverage undermine democracy and the rule of law that Malawians cherish,” U.S. Department of State spokeswoman Heide Bronke Fulton said in an e-mailed statement.
The U.S. is among foreign donors that provide as much as 40 percent of Malawi’s annual national budget. The U.K. also expressed its concern “about the state of democratic governance and human rights in Malawi,” according to an e-mailed statement by the minister for Africa, Henry Bellingham, yesterday. “The situation is extremely worrying,” he said.
The U.K. cut aid and announced in May it is reviewing relations with the country after President Bingu wa Mutharika expelled its envoy for criticizing him in a leaked cable. Other countries are holding back on giving aid until Malawi completes the second review of its program with the International Monetary Fund, which is overdue.
Protests, organized by civil-society groups and opposition parties, started on July 20 with tens of thousands of people marching in the main cities against government policies and shortages of fuel and foreign currency. Declining tobacco exports have reduced foreign exchange receipts, making it more difficult to pay for motor fuel imports. Malawi is the world’s biggest producer of the burley variety of tobacco.
Amnesty said in an e-mailed report that it had recorded “increasing intolerance of dissent, and vilification of human rights activists by senior members of the government” in recent months.
Mutharika said yesterday that he is prepared to hold talks with civil-society groups and opposition parties to end the disturbances. He didn’t respond to a list of demands from the protesters and warned that the government will act against the leaders of the protests if there is looting.
The groups, including the Institute of Policy Interaction, the Malawi Law Society and the Council of Churches, have demanded an improvement in the lives of poor Malawians and an end to fuel and currency shortages. They also want an explanation from Mutharika on how he could afford to buy the land he owns, according to the petition handed to officials on July 20.
“The current president appears to have amassed significant wealth that does not tally with his salary,” groups said in the petition.
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