Author Archives: Denis Calnan

About Denis Calnan

As a chase researcher for CBC Montreal’s morning show, Denis Calnan would wake up, arrive at work and finish a story before most people leave the house in the morning. He’s now shifted his schedule, and his city—he’s working as an intern at Capital Radio in the heart of Blantyre, Malawi. In addition to working at CBC in Montreal, Calnan has freelanced for Canadian Geographic and worked for CBC in Happy Valley-Goose Bay, Labrador. Calnan says he “finds living in communities all over the world is a very satisfying way to live life.” He has hitchhiked across Canada and stayed in cities across Canada—all because he loves getting to know his “massive and diverse country.” He’s also worked in Ethiopia and Guyana with Youth Challenge International. Calnan has a journalism degree from King’s College in Halifax.

Children denied medical treatment in lieu of prayer

Some parents in Malawi, including Yesaya Mussa (above), refuse to seek medical attention when their children fall ill, believing instead that prayer will heal them. Photo by Denis Calnan.

By Rhodes Msonkho and Denis Calnan

Interpretations of the Bible are keeping some parents in Malawi from accessing medical treatment for their children, according to police spokespeople.

Yesaya Mussa’s is one such parent. His two-year old daughter was burned in an accident and kept from medical attention while he and others prayed for her to get better.

Mussa runs a small hardware shop in the Zomba market and says he has not done anything wrong.

“The Bible says that whoever believes in God can be healed through prayer,” Mussa explains in the local language, Chichewa.

He is upset at the current government for infringing on his freedom to practice his beliefs.

“We never go to hospitals – we are still sticking to what God is saying,” he says, “We are facing numerous challenges with the current government.”

Mussa recounts the day the police came to his house to take his daughter to the hospital and him, to prison. Mussa stayed behind bars for one night, before being released on bail. He was later given a 15-month suspended sentence in order to return to his daughter as her guardian.

Nicholas Gondwa, the police spokesperson for Malawi’s Eastern Region, says the situation of parents refusing medical attention reached a critical point during a measles outbreak in 2010. Parents were urged to get their children vaccinated against measles, but some refused

“It came as a surprise,” says Gondwa, “[because] we had so many cases.”

After getting the disease, Gondwa says several children were isolated in their homes as their parents prayed for their recovery. The police were tipped off by neighbours – but not before children died from the disease.

Tomeck Nyaude of the Zomba Police recalls a case where a father was arrested after denying his son medical attention when the boy fractured a bone in his leg playing soccer. The police were informed by one of the boy’s siblings seven days after the incident.  Sadly, the easily treatable fracture led to the leg being amputated.

“When you are enjoying your own rights and freedoms,” says Nyaude, speaking about the freedom to religion, “make sure that you do not involve and injure somebody [else’s] rights.”

Nyaude remembers the case of Mussa and his daughter, which was brought to his division’s attention by one of Mussa’s neighbours. When his police unit arrived in the community, they found the church elders praying for Mussa’s daughter. Nyaude says the father claimed in court that he realized he had done something wrong and was therefore released on a suspended sentence.

Mussa gives a contradicting story, saying he was released because he was a first-time offender and continues to stand by his belief that if his child is sick or injured again, the only attention she should receive is that of prayer.

“We are doing this based on the faith we have and what the scripture is saying,” says Mussa. “I am encouraging those who are discouraged and might think of bowing down to this pressure, that we should not allow that. They should persevere during this trying time.”

Abuse of police powers exposes ineffectiveness of reform training

Capital FM reporter Jane Kaonga sits down with Mama Florence Abraham as she recounts a time when police unlawfully beat her son. Photo by Denis Calnan.

By Jane Kaonga and Denis Calnan

Maclean Panje scrolls through photos of his nephew, 27-year-old Emmanuel Kafele, on his cell phone. The pictures document parts of Kafele’s body: his ear, forehead, arm and leg. The photos were taken after he was beaten to death in March, allegedly at the hands of Maurice Kamphade, a police officer with the Zomba division.

Kafele was brought into a Zomba police station mid-March for trespassing. Kamphade is now charged and on remand at Zomba Maximum Prison for Kafele’s death in a prison cell.

“There was a stab wound on the forehead, and there was another one on the left ear, behind the ear; and also several stab wounds on the left elbow,” says Coxley Chaheka, the doctor who conducted the post-mortem on Kafele’s body.  Chaheka confirmed that these and other injuries were caused by a blunt object. The final cause of death was loss of blood.

“This one was, I think, a strange one, because it was done within a government institution – a police station,” says Chahecka.

The case is not as strange as some would think.

“It is a concern that is becoming a growing one,” says John Kapito, referring to cases of police brutality in Malawi. Kapito is the chairman of the Malawi Human Rights Commission, an organization very aware of cases like these all over Malawi.

“A lot of resources have been spent by so many stakeholders,” he says of the police reform program that was started by the British government in 1997. The program was supposed to improve the quality of work by Malawi’s police force, but Kapito says many are now questioning the effectiveness of the program.

In a Blantyre suburb, Mama Florence Abraham sits solemnly in her house recounting the story of how her son, Dalitso, was beat by a police officer in that same house.

Abraham owed Officer Ntali’s wife money. When Ntali threatened to arrest Abraham if the money was not paid back soon, Dalitso questioned why an arrest was warranted for a small issue like this.

Ntali later came to Abraham’s home in the middle of the night, searched the house for Dalitso, and beat him.

Abraham says when Dalitso was in prison, the officers took turns beating her son. Upon release, he had a broken arm.

Kapito says that there are cases where inmates are said to have committed suicide, but upon examination it is clear they were killed.

Nicholas Gondwa, a police spokesperson in the Eastern Region, wants to ensure that public justice will be done.

“We arrested him on the same day,” he says, confirming that Kamphade is alleged to have killed Kafele and that he is being held in Zomba Maximum Prison. The case is now before the High Court.

Kapito says it may take a while before a reformed police force will be seen because the older generation in the police force has autocratic ideas of how to enforce the law. He says their “understanding” of police work is to beat a person.

Kapito says the younger generation has more of an understanding of human rights. “Maybe in the next ten years we are going to see a reformed police service.”

“I don’t know why the police are using themselves as torturing grounds,” says Panje, “Emmanuel was a fine boy.”

The birth of Insight: Malawi’s premier human rights program

Insight producer Chikondo Juma with jhr's Denis Calnan. Photo by Jenny Vaughan.

In January 2011, jhr intern Denis Calnan set off to Malawi for a six-month internship placement at Capital radio in Blantyre. When he arrived, he found a newsroom full of talented reporters, editors and managers deeply committed to producing stories on human rights issues in Malawi. He knew he’d have no trouble getting hard-hitting rights media on the airwaves, but wanted to work with management to create a program dedicated to human rights reporting. And so, Insight was born. It’s a one-hour documentary program that airs weekly on Capital, one of the country’s largest private radio stations. To date, they’ve produced stories about child slavery, the rights of the mentally ill and the social and environmental costs of deforestation.

Here, Denis talks to the show’s executive producer Chikondi Juma about the program and the impact it’s having in Malawi.

Chikondi Juma on Capital Radio’s human rights program, Insight

Managing democracy on Malawi’s airwaves

Al Osman talks to reporters in the Capital newsroom. Photo by Denis Calnan.

Al Osman has been in media his whole life—as managing editor of publications in southern Africa, as press officer for the Botswana government and Malawi’s former president, Bakili Muluzi, and now, as the manager of one of Malawi’s first private radio broadcasters, Capital Radio. Today, the 66-year-old says it’s a job that’s becoming more challenging as the government of Malawi attempts to limit free speech.

Owners of private newspapers and radio stations remain nervous about freedom of speech since earlier this year government passed a bill giving itself the power to close media publishing material deemed “contrary to the public interest.” Although the law applies to print media in specific, the threat is against all media, says Osman.

“That is still hanging over our necks like the Sword of Democles,” he says. “Our hope is that no court in this country would uphold it.”

Only time will tell.

Media organizations in the country appealed to the Minister of Information to repeal it. That failed, and the matter is now before the courts.

When Capital started broadcasting in 1999, its daytime programming was dominated by music. The station’s motto remains “playing today’s hits and yesterday’s classics,” but the news-obsessed Osman makes sure his mandated 30 per cent local content is made up of hourly news, talk radio and in-depth analysis.

Being in a managerial role means he is rarely in the newsroom, but that’s where his passion lies. He occasionally pops into story meetings and encourages his reporters to fairly challenge the government and other authorities, but it’s a fine balance.

The test of freedom of speech has come strongest via the live phone-in programs that Capital does.

“Real credibility is for people to hear their own voices,” Osman says about the importance of phone-ins. He says people are frustrated about the state of affairs in the country: the lack of running water, electricity and fuel, as well as the recent clampdown on public demonstrations.

“We have to remain credible and at the same time we have to continue to give people the opportunity to vent their frustrations,” he insists.

Osman claims the Malawi Communications Regulatory Authority (MCRA) has suggested Capital cease to do phone-ins, but he sees them as too important to let go.

It’s MCRA that Osman suggests is trying to do the censoring on behalf of the government. He claims people at Capital are “being warned against some of the stories we are carrying,” primarily through the phone-ins.

“We have to be extremely careful in how we are doing this, without compromising our principles and without, at the same time, doing something that can force the station to be shut down. It is a delicate balancing act,” he adds. “We can only pray that … we will continue to survive until we start operating under [a] much more enlightened administration.”

Today, Osman is trying to slowly move out of his role as Managing Director, encouraging his daughter, Arlene Osman, to take over.

His move to get out of Capital might be traced to his future business plans: he wants to start up a third daily newspaper in Malawi. The newspapers that are there now, he says, “are playing a tremendously powerful and positive role,” but he says he wants to help make another “media product that can contribute further to our young democracy.”

Here in Malawi, we’re all eagerly waiting for the media mogul’s next move.

The environmental cost of charcoal

Charcoal is ubiquitous in Malawi; it’s sold on the side of the road and used by most to cook.

Trees harvested for charcoal are rapidly depleting and many are being urged to stop illegal charcoal burning and selling by environmentalists. They’re warning that if the number of trees continues to decline, Malawians will soon be facing other problems such as soil erosion and access to water, which will strain agricultural production.In a country where most people are farmers, this is a devastating projection.

In this video, Malawian journalist, Earlene Chimoyo and Journalists for Human Rights reporter Denis Calnan investigate charcoal usage and the challenges in limiting its usage.

Youth migration: Child labour in Malawi

Video and text by Denis Calnan

In Malawi today, jobs for children are shifting; traditionally, underage youth were employed on tea and tobacco estates. But now many are working in urban centres, hawking goods on city streets and in markets, according to a children’s rights advocate, Ken Williams Mhango, country director of the African Network for Protection and Prevention of Child Abuse and Neglect.

In this video, Malawian journalist, Terence Mwamlima, and Journalists for Human Rights reporter Denis Calnan investigate the presence of children in two urban markets. The report reveals that when child labour might is minimized in some sectors, it often increases in others.

“Farting law” causing stink, while democratic crisis hits Malawi

Malawi is starting to look more like it did during the days of dictatorship-rule, say human rights activists in the country.

While recent international media interest has been limited to the country’s so called ‘farting law,’ aconfusing law about public flatulence, there is more serious news happening in this small African country.

A decade-long delay of local elections, an expansion of police powers, the government giving itself the power to ban newspapers and the refusal to legalize homosexuality are some of the issues drawing the ire of critics.  Now a fuel shortage is leading human rights activists to say basic needs cannot be met.

A protest was to take place last week against the shortage of petrol in the country, but police temporarily detained organizers and placed heavily armed officers at meeting points.

Human rights activists say the fuel crisis means goods and services cannot move, grounding the economy to a halt and leaving citizens without the ability to support themselves.

“This is the worst crisis in this country,” says Malawi Watch Director Billy Banda. “There are so many Malawians . . . that have died because of this crisis,” explaining that emergency vehicles and medicinal drugs are facing serious challenges in getting around. Officials could not confirm the number of deaths.

Minister of Justice, George Chaponda, says the protesters have to follow the right procedures in order to demonstrate, suggesting the proper channels were not informed.

The suppression of the protest is the latest in the series of moves by government of President Bingu wa Mutharika causing widespread consternation.

“We may be taking Malawi ten, twenty years backwards,” says Mavuto Bamusi, one of the protest organizers who was detained. Bamusi is also executive director of the Human Rights Consultative Committee (HRCC), an umbrella group of NGOs. “We may be taking our political systems into some sort of political absolutism, or indeed, some form of parliamentary dictatorship.”

These moves have prompted action from donors. The German government has suspended a disbursement of 2.5 million Euro, a 50 per cent cut in funding sighting “concerns over human rights and freedom of the press.” The United States has also announced that about $350 million USD allotted for Malawi will not be released. And the Norweigan government is now revoking a donation, saying funds were not spent on what they were supposed to be.

Representatives of Germany, the US and Norway have been joined by France, Iceland, Ireland, Japan and the UK in issuing a strongly worded joint release stating they are concerned about “good governance and respect for human rights” in the country.

The government is defending itself and standing up to foreign donors, saying Malawi is a sovereign state that will not change its laws under the pressure of foreign governments.

It also says its laws are misunderstood, sighting both the publication law and the law about “fowling the air.”

“Some people want to paint a bad picture of this country,” in order to hinder development, says Chaponda.

Bamusi says the government is making laws “contrary to the spirit of our constitution,” adding that parliament is becoming “a rubber stamp of the executive  (which) is a blow to democracy.”

But Chaponda insists the government’s laws are healthy for the country. “In ten years,” he believes, Malawi will be “out of the poverty trap.”