Malawi: Political Science Lecturer Talks About Blogging Academic Freedom

When Malawi's Inspector General of Police Peter Mukhito summoned political science senior lecturer Dr Blessings Chinsinga over an example he gave in the lecture room, he had no idea that the incident will appear on Boniface Dulani's blog. And when it did, Malawi media picked and followed the rest of the developments which have left the University of Malawi's two main colleges closed for a month now.

Global Voices author Victor Kaonga wanted to hear from Dulani about his blogging experiences especially following the Chinsinga episode which has turned into a movement fighting for for academic freedom.

Malawian Lecturer Boniface Dulani. Photo source: Michigan State University Flickr page.

Question: Why did you start blogging?

I have to give Steve Sharra – a Malawian and Africanist blogger extraordinaire- the credit on this one. He prodded me to put my old journalism skills to practice by starting the blog. My love for blogging has since grown as it has provided me with a medium for airing my thoughts without editorial deadlines and word restrictions

Did you ever expect that one of your blog posts could be the source and reference of the fight for academic freedom in Malawi?

Far from it. When I resisted Steve’s initial push to start the blog, I had very low expectations about blogging generally and particularly about my ability to garner the kind of readership that my blog has attracted so far. I had always thought that not many people would be interested to read my thoughts, especially when there are so many news media that provide timely commentary on Malawian politics and other issues. On the issue of academic freedom, it never crossed my mind that of the many rights and freedoms that are guaranteed in the Malawi Constitution, this one would come under threat in the way it has. I had hoped that gone were the days when academics lived in fear and had to choose between self-censorship or leaving our beautiful country for faraway lands that provide guarantees of academic freedom. It was such a major shock when the Chinsinga episode happened.

Many media houses in Malawi heard about the summoning of Dr Blessings Chinsinga by the Inspector General of Police after you published the story on your blog. How do you feel when you see many stories written and published in the media based on your post which has since become very influential?

I am glad that I was able to bring this unfortunate episode to the attention of colleagues in Malawi and around the world, and I am thankful to all those who provided the link to my blog on their facebook pages and other social networking sites. Despite the interest that the story generated, including the spike in traffic to my blog, I would rather the incident had never happened and the situation remained as normal than celebrate this sad episode that provides yet another piece of evidence on Malawi’s slide to dictatorship.

You wrote in an email to me that you are now afraid to be in Malawi. Why?

Well, I know Blessings as well as any of my colleagues in the University of Malawi. Compared to the pointed examples that some of us give in the hope of equipping the future generation of Malawian policymakers with contemporary skills to tackle the country’s myriad challenges, Blessings is very mild in his criticism. My fear then stems from the observation that if a moderate like Blessings can be summoned by the Inspector General of Police, what would prevent them from dragging some of us to court with the possibility of imprisonment, and God forbid, death? I am afraid Malawi has become a society where people that provide honest commentary like Blessings are being victimized while opportunistic praise-singers and hand-clappers keep on being rewarded. This is scary, not only from a personal security perspective, but also for the future prospects of our beautiful country. It is an entrenchment of a dangerous brand of patrimonial politics that should have no room in the 21st century

Do you regret having published that story?

Not at all. I can never have regrets for telling the truth as I see it. The unfortunate events that I described in that story happened. Again, I would rather be writing some positive stories about Malawi, but there is very little that is positive to say about the Malawi politics at the moment.

Have there been any changes in the number of visits to your blog since the story about Chinsinga started running?

There has been a big spike in the number of visitors to the site. The Chinsinga story attracted the most hits of all the stories that I have ever posted and also attracted the highest number of comments. There was also a dramatic increase in the number of individuals signing up to follow the blog, which went up almost threefold. Another notable feature is the traffic from Africa, particularly Malawi. Prior to the Chinsinga saga, the majority of visitors to the blog were from the United States and Europe. However, since then, there has been a surge in the number of unique and returning visitors from Malawi and within the African continent.

When one, especially a Malawian, reads your blog, one gets the impression that you are very upset with the current president and administration. In fact in one of your posts, you have stated that two cabinet ministers (of Justice and Education) have been the worst performers. Considering the political situation in Malawi today, do you think you would have been able to vent off such sentiments in any other medium other than through a blog?

Blogging provides a unique space where one can write freely, without fear or restrictions. The blog also gives me the widest scope of topics to comment on. I remember when I used to write a weekly column in a Malawi newspaper sometime back, there were many times when I just felt there was nothing worthy writing for the week and yet had to submit something to my Editor. Although the media in Malawi, especially the print media, does provide some space for the type of political commentary like the one on the blog, one is often shackled by editorial policy. In any event, editors might feel compelled not to publish some of the thoughts that are deemed to be too confrontational and likely to elicit negative reaction from government such as the piece on the Ministers of Education and Justice. There is no such pressure with blogging. I write and post on topics that I feel like commenting on at a time of my choosing!

How do you feel after publishing any posts regarding politics in Malawi?

The blog for me is like a personal platform from where I can speak and reach out to the world about my thoughts on politics in Malawi. I take particular pleasure in the comments that some of my stories generate and love especially the critical comments that challenge me to rethink some of my own positions.

Has your blog ever been blocked?

Thankfully, not yet.

What do you think is the future of citizen media in Malawi with regard to democracy and governance?

There is a big and growing role. While during the Kamuzu era, events in Malawi would take forever to reach the rest of the world, today’s events can reach all corners of the world in a matter of seconds through various citizens’ media channels. Looking at some of the global reaction to the issue of academic freedom in Malawi, it is encouraging to note that the citizen media is already playing such an important role in promoting transparency and holding political elites accountable for their actions. All these help to support and nurture democracy and good governance in our beloved country. Sadly though, our government in Malawi does not appear to be moving fast to embrace this new media, which has the potential to enable them not only to get important feedback on policy choices, but also to reach out to the public in ways that were not possible in the recent past.

In some of your posts and online conversations, you have declared that as an academic, you will not keep silent. What do you mean?

In my view, events such as Chinsinga’s summoning by the Inspector General of the Malawi Police are meant to cow people and silence critical voices. I have, however, always held the view that criticism, if embraced and acted on by government, can serve a positive purpose and facilitate better choice. To give in and become silent due to threats and intimidation from the police and security agents is, in my view, equal to giving up on Malawi. Since we don’t have much choice on our nationality, I will therefore not be silent but will continue speaking out. And thankfully, many colleagues within the University of Malawi, civil society and the citizen media also refuse to be silenced. I take pride in being part of these communities.

Do you think you need any support from online activists in the fight for academic freedom and other human rights in Malawi?

Certainly. As my good friend, Henry Chingaipe, would say, those who sleep on their rights suffer what they have to suffer under bad regimes. Online activism provides an opportunity for ordinary Malawians to stand up and defend their own rights and influence others to do so. Remember, the time when Malawians, including academics, struggled for their rights and freedoms during the Banda era: the news would be passed on through letters that had sometimes to be smuggled out of prison. As a result, their messages and appeals for help took forever to reach the outside world. By the time responses and messages of support began to trickle back in, it was often too late – some were either already dead, in prison while others could not wait and had to free the country. The online media today and the teams of online activists have the capacity to reach out to a global audience and elicit timely responses before it is too late for today’s freedom fighters. In countries like ours where patrimonial politics has taken root and the propensity for non democratic governance is high, academics can provide a lead as voices of reason in the defence of rights. Their stand to defend their freedom, should encourage us all to not let the political elites trample on rights that we have by virtue of being human beings.

Share with me comment/feedback highlights that you have received since you posted the story about Chinsinga.

The feedback has been overwhelmingly positive. People are shocked that Malawi appears to be headed back to the dark days of dictatorial rule. However, there is at the same time determination that we should not allow a few selfish individuals to take us back to those days. On another note, after I published the story on the blog, I also received an e-mail from the Institute of International Education in the United States asking me to pass on information to Blessings about the Scholar Rescue Fund (SRF), which provides temporary fellowships for established scholars whose lives or careers are threatened in their home countries. This for me, demonstrates, yet again, the power of blogging.

Your last word.

Let me end with a quotation from one of the commentators on the Chinsinga story, Bertha Lilian Munthali. She writes: “Don’t ever under estimate the power of the people. In togetherness and oneness, there lies our strength, the very same people who sang praises and voted for you, the same can peacefully ask you to let go”. Amen to that and thank you for giving me this opportunity to share some of my thoughts with you. To my fellow bloggers, I say don’t underestimate the power of this medium. There is much that can be achieved using this platform.

* Read our article about Boniface Dulani's post and another article by Steve Sharra about classroom spies and academic freedom in Malawi.


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