Malawi News editor-in-chief George Kasakula defiantly said that Times Group would continue to publish its newspaper titles despite having the newsroom and other operation offices locked up under police guard and indeed their Saturday publication was in circulation.
The paper appeared on the streets with the lead story of the Malawi Revenue Authority (MRA closure bearing a banner headline ‘Witchunt’!
Public tax collector, MRA on Friday sealed Times Media Group headquarters at Ginnery Corner in Blantyre over alleged failure by the company to remit taxes.
But Times Media Group editor-in-chief George Kasakula said the closure of the media giant which has a radio and television stations is not about taxes but was done to silence them by under pressure Malawian President Peter Mutharika, highly criticised for using intimidation as weapon to gain voters.
“We are just doing our job. They want to silence us because Times Media Group stands out to them,” Kasakula told BBC on Friday.
“What is wrong is they are not following the law; the law doesn’t say they should just come straight and close you. There are steps that they can follow to get the money. Discussion is part of the law,” he said.
Kasakula cited that Times Group never refused to pay taxes, pointedly adding that the government was using unpaid taxes as a smokescreen to silence an independent media that was exposing their criminality.
He said the media group is credited for exposing K4 billion initially earmarked for development in 86 constituencies belonging to government legislators and others associating with the ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) as it is not appearing in the budget.
Government reportedly wanted the fund to be shared “ secretly” but Malawi News exposed that K3.4 billion was allocated to 86 MPs who voted against the Electoral Reforms Bills in December, translating to K40 million per beneficiary constituency.
He also said Times Group has been uncovering so many corruption scandal including the role fired Agriculture Minister George Chaponda played in the purchase of 100 000 metric tonnes of the staple grain from Zambia in what was christened as Maizegate.
Kasakula said the newspaper giant has given focus to the “big fight in the ruling party” on succession stand-off between President Mutharika and Vice-president Saulos Chilima, saying they have covered the issue “fairly” but the regime wants it to be covering in favour of Mutharika.
Governance expert Makhumbo Munthali also lambasted the move to shut down the media giant, calling it a deliberate ploy to silence the media before the watershed May 2019 Tripartite Elections.
“Just looking at the timing and the context under which Times Group has been shut down, it is clear that the decision by MRA is largely politically motivated.
Just like it was at the peak of maizegate saga where Times Group was fearless at exposing the scandal a stance that eventually attracted MRA wrath, similarly.
Times Group is now being penalised by the DPP government masquerading as MRA for giving much coverage to the current DPP infighting and in the process exposing the leadership weaknesses of the President,” Munthali said.
He pointed out Times Group has done a good job by providing a balanced platform for both Chilimaism and Mutharika factions, a stance which may not have pleased the President and the inner circle.
“Now with the battle lines being drawn between Mutharika and Chilima, the Mutharika camp is so desperate to do whatever it can-legal or illegal- just to ensure that the voice of Chilima for Presidency is not heard a far especially as the party prepares for the convention,” he noted.
The governance expert who is also human rights activist said the MRA closing down of Times Group is one of those “desperate attempts” by Mutharika using legal backed means to gag media freedom in the country especially against those media institutions perceived to be critical to him.
“It is in this regard that the decision is largely politically motivated. Otherwise, one tends to wonder why it always takes MRA to wait for the occurrence of public political pressure exerted on Mutharika regime for it to remember that the critics of the regimes have not paid their taxes. This is further worsened by allegations that the state-run broadcaster owes MRA huge sums of money but never have we heard MBC being threatened that it would be closed,” he said.
However, on the other hand, Munthali said it should be incumbent upon all media houses including Times Group as well as NGOs and activists who spearhead the social accountability movement in the country by holding government accountable on the use of tax payers money to put their house in order.
“It is weird and a highest level of hypocrisy to blame government of abusing and stealing tax payers money when in actual fact you are equally thieves and crooks by evading payment of taxes.
“While it is a fact that MRA decision to close Times Group has largely been politically motivated, the failure of Times Group to faithfully honour its tax obligations is regrettable and must be condemned in the strongest terms as it robs the very poor Malawians the institution claims to represent of good quality public service,” he said.
He said Times Group must not only be counted as a vibrant and giant media house but also a law abiding institution that respects and honours its tax obligations.
Times rival Nation Publication Limited has not faced the wrath of the government this time around as it is deemed to be taking a cautious approach on its coverage and apparently a number of its journalists have a “sweetenor” from the regime.
Meanwhile, Times Group lawyer Innocent Kalua had a fresh court to have the premises reopened.
Added Kasakula: “The court has told us that the injunction we obtained after they [MRA] sealed the company in December still stands. The figures are not much, it can be paid if all procedures are followed.”
Last year, MRA also shut down the media giant over K675 million in unpaid taxes.
MRA said the bill was for value added tax, corporate tax, fringe benefit tax, withholding tax and pay as you earn for the period between 2011 and 2016.
Times Group owns Times Radio and Times TV. It also publishes Malawi News , The Daily Times and The Sunday Times .