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The Struggle For Academic Freedom In Malawi Continues

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The struggle for Academic freedom in Malawi began when the Inspector General of Malawi Police, Peter Mukhito, summoned Associate Professor Blessings Chinsinga for interrogation “over the contents of one of his lectures in which he gave reasons for popular protests in Egypt and Tunisia.”

Following the police chief’s quizzing of the lecturer, the academic staff Union called a meeting at which they expressed their fears and dismay about threats to academic freedom. This eventually led to the current stand-off between the University of Malawi and the Inspector General and with the president of Malawi, Bingu Wa Mutharika, taking sides with the Inspector General.

Lecturers at Chancellor College in Malawi, protest limits on academic freedom. Photo courtesy of Daily Times.

AfrobeatRadio/Wuyi Jacobs: Joining us on the phone is Carol Linskey from SUNY Binghamton in New York State. Welcome to AfrobeatRadio.

Carol Linskey: Thank you.

AfrobeatRadio: Can you give us the latest in the crisis of academic freedom in Malawi, concerning the case of Chancellor College in Malawi?

Carol Linskey: Well, the latest is that Jessie [Kabwila - Kapasula] gave an interview on a talk radio programme – Brian Banda’s show, Straight Talk on Malawian radio- where she talked for twenty five minutes about her position there. But, the developments are as you know and the whole stand-off is about Blessings Chinsinga, who gave a lecture, and one of his students then went to the police about the content of this lecture. The Inspector General of the police then came to Chancellor College, also known as CHANCO College in Zomba, and asked the professor about the substance of his lecture. The academic staff union of which Jessie is the acting president then confronted the Inspector General. He would not offer an apology, and even went further to say that academic freedom is limited by national security issues. And this goes against the Malawian constitution. The stand-off is therefore about academic freedom; this is what the struggle is really about.

Lecturers at CHANCO and Polytechnic Colleges have a solid case according to a number of court judgments that have indicated that academic freedom is protected by the constitution. However, a lot of things have been happening lately; the president of Malawi, Bingu Wa Mutharika after siding with the Inspector General has recently come up with a commission to investigate what academic freedom means. And so Jessie [Kabwila - Kapasula] has opposed this move saying that this is intended to limit academic freedom in Malawi. Her view is that academic freedom is freedom to educate people in a university settings and is based on scholarly pursuit. The police have no right to be involved in academic issues according to her and according to the constitution of Malawi.

According to Jessie [Kabwila-Kapasul], the Malawi president actions to establish a committee and meet with the students to hear what they think of these issues is not appropriate and not in accordance with the constitution. He is also not giving the lecturers a chance to speak with him.

AfrobeatRadio: Now, Jessie Kabwila – Kapasula, we understand from some media reports has been fired from her job as a lecturer at the University of Malawi including quite a number of her colleagues.

Carol Linskey: well, I can speak to it from the newspaper’s accounts. A month ago, Jessie and her colleagues went to the courts and they got an injunction against any action by UNIMA [University of Malawi], that’s the University of Malawi Council. So they are still getting paid and they are still considered as employees of the University because they’ve done nothing wrong. They still prepare papers and presentations and do consultative work. The only thing they have refused to do until academic freedom is assured is to give lectures in the classrooms.

AfrobeatRadio: Is Jessie safe? We understand that she seems to be moving from place to place to evade police action.

Carol Linskey: Well, yes. The other day on the 31st of May [2011], in her interview, she said that she felt like a fugitive in her own homeland. About a month ago, she got a call that was threatening. Her neighbors called her and warned her that there were some, I quote “thugs”- that’s how they were described, in front of her home in an unmarked vehicle and told her not to come home. She’s relocated to another town. She must feel it’s very unsafe.

In the background of Malawi politics right now, there are a number of anti- human rights actions that makes many to feel unsafe. It is unsafe to live in Malawi if you are opposed to the president.

AfrobeatRadio: We also understand that the public has been divided on this.

Carol Linskey: The newspapers that have comments sections, have reflected other views on this issue. That’s where I guess a lot of the people express feelings that differ from mine and Jessie’s. A lot of people say that Jessie has a big ego. She is a very strong minded woman and very out-spoken, but she insists that this is not about her. It is about the Academic Staff Union and Malawi’s own constitution. It is a bigger issue; it is about a democratic society.

However, because she is the acting president of the Academic Staff Union, she doesn’t hold her tongue when she knows she is right. That puts her in the spot light and attracts a lot of attention to her. I agree that this is not about Jessie [Kabwila - Kapasula] per se. But I’m concerned about Jessie because she is my friend, but as an academic, I am also concerned about the state of affairs in Malawi in relation to academic freedom..

AfrobeatRadio: In Malawi?

Caroly Linskey: Yes, in Malawi, and the international reverberations around the world. It’s a constitutional issue. Anybody who believes in freedom of speech, and also the place that academic scholars have in our society to educate young people should be concerned. Academics have to be able to investigate all types of questions.

German students protest for academic freedom in Malawi. Courtesy of Nyasa Times

AfrobeatRadio: We also hear talk about going to the UN. Is there something you can tell us about that?

Carol Linskey: That’s what Jessie said. If it goes that far, then they will push it because they are at a standstill in Malawi- a hundred and seven days today. Last Friday, they had a rally in Zomba, walking across the town to raise awareness and they wore red for academic freedom.

There were also people in Germany who did the same thing in solidarity. Malawi is a poor state; forty percent of its income is dependent on donors from the UK, United States and Germany and these donors are withdrawing because of the human rights issues that are going on in the country. You know, if it comes down to somebody’s life being in danger and their freedoms restricted by the leadership of the country, maybe it is time the United Nations should get involved.

AfrobeatRadio: Have you spoken to Jessie yourself, lately?

Carol Linskey: Not lately. We send little messages to each other over Facebook. And I ask is this okay? You know, I always ask her. Yes Carol [Jessie Kabwila - Kapasula would say], thank you very much for looking out for academic freedom in Malawi.

AfrobeatRadio: Can you give us details of her Facebook page, so that people listening can support her and her cause.

Carol Linskey: Yes, there are two actually. One is called Support Jessie Kapasula, an academic in Malawi. And the other one is the International Petition for Academic Freedom in Malawi. This was started by a woman in Germany, in Halle-Wittenberg at the Martin Luther University in Germany. The international petition has already been sent to [President] Mutharika.

AfrobeatRadio: Thank you very much for joining us, Carol.

Carol Linskey: Thank you very much for having me Wuyi, and for looking after academic freedom in Malawi.

 

This interview was broadcast on AfrobeatRadio on WBAI 99.5 FM on Saturday June 4, 2011. AfrobeatRadio broadcast every Saturday from 4:00 to 5:00 PM EST. Streams live at www.wbai.org.

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