The Role of the Media in Advancing the Rights of Persons with Albinism in Malawi

Introduction: Emergence of Violence against Persons with Albinism in Malawi

It is estimated that Malawi has a population of between 7,000 and 10,000 people with albinism. Government of Malawi reports indicate that since 2014, 18 people with albinism have been killed, 14 abducted, three are missing, and 28 burial sites have been robbed by individuals and gangs. 69 cases have been reported to the Malawi Police Service since 2014. The Association of Persons living with Albinism (APAM) has registered over 50 additional attacks between December 2015 and March 2016, including death out of which 64% were women and children. It is believed that many more cases occur unreported. Malawi is one of 23 countries where persons with albinism are at risk of such attacks.

Persons with albinism face attacks and killings because their body parts are highly sought for witchcraft rituals believed to bring luck or fortune. Persons with albinism are abducted and killed for their body parts, which are believed to carry magic powers that are used for magic charms. Even body parts and bones are exhumed from graves of persons with albinism for the charms. The high demand in the body parts and bones has resulted in the rise of criminal thugs and gangs engaging in the attacks and exhumations.

Until the recent wave of media reports on the crisis, the issue did not appear as a national priority. In fact, the issue was perceived as non-existent in Malawi. As recent as 2013, a newspaper article noted that barbaric and bastardly acts of targeting albinos are totally unheard of in Malawi.

The role of the media in the discourse that constructed the violence and killings as a national priority has not been analysed. Specifically, the role of online media in the discourse has been ignored. Although online media has a relatively small audience, its audience includes the majority of the elite Malawians that are able to directly influence national decisions e.g. civil servants, politicians, academics, and activists. Drawing from online newspaper articles, we will discuss the key issues that made the issue a national agenda. This article will focus on the extent that the three online publishers set violence against people with albinism as a national agenda, how the media shaped the discussion in the articles and opinions, and the articulation of human rights issues in the discussion.

Selected issues covered in the news articles

The early newspaper articles in 2014 and early 2015 focused on reporting incidences of violence, killings and exhumation. Whilst these reports were crucial in sensitising the public and officials on the severity of the issue, the newspapers have been criticised for showing pictures of graphic content that the public may find disturbing. For example, on 18 December 2015 Nyasa Times published a newspaper article entitled ‘Mastermind of albino attack arrested- Malawi Police’. The picture used in that was used in the article was that of a 17 years old victim, Alfred, who had been hacked two weeks earlier. The picture shows the boy recovering in a hospital, with visible deep cuts across his face. The same picture was also used by Nation Malawi on 1 December 2015 and 5 January 2016 in their articles entitled ‘Assailants hack albino’ and ‘The muted side of albino killings’ respectively.

On 15 April the same Nyasa Times carried an article entitled ‘Rituals: Malawi Police arrest father over killed two-year albino daughter’ in which they use graphic pictures of bones of a deceased person with albinism. The same picture was used in another article published in June. In May an article was published entitled ‘Albino body exhumed: Malawi Police confirm arrest of herbalists over rituals’ in which they used a graphic picture of a decomposing body that was exhumed. They even named the deceased in the article. Other pictures used have included a dead body of a child and a woman whose both hands had been chopped off.

APAM has cautioned various media houses to exercise compassion and ethics by resisting from using graphic pictures such as those hacked by abductors, dead persons, or body parts or bones. Whilst it was these graphic pictures that triggered public interest and action from authorities, compassion and consideration of ethics is important in order to maintain compassion for, and dignity and privacy of the victims or the dead. APAM continuously engages with media houses and their staff in order to sensitise them on ethical reporting.

The online newspapers’ headlines have served numerous beyond informing the public and officials about the gruesome incidences that have occurred in Malawi. Articles covering responses by state institutions have acted as assurance to the public that government is responding to the situation. This includes articles covering arrest of perpetrators, politicians condemning attacks of people with albinism, a presidential statement outlining government response, or police warnings. The newspapers have also covered the advocacy campaigns that various stakeholders in Malawian society have implemented to respond to the crisis. This has included campaigns by Police, international agencies, various civil society movements, fashion models, and movements of persons with albinism.

For example, an article in Nyasa Times in June depicted children with albinism with placards calling for authorities to protect them. The messages in the placards included ‘Police wake up’, ‘we are one, just different skin pigmentation’, and ‘we can end discrimination, abductions and killings’. The article highlighted that Malawi government has started enrolling such children in specific schools on a scholarship to reduce the number of those who had dropped out of school on fear of attacks. This article served many symbolic purposes. It depicted desperate children in need of protection from society and authorities. The messages targeted the prejudices that they face in their everyday life, highlighting their demand to be taken as equal citizens. The messages were also targeted at the government to demand that they step up efforts. The headline in the article, ‘Malawi govt enrols albino children into public boarding schools’ was reassuring to the readers that the state was responding to the issue generally, and in particular to the boy and girl-child.

Media also widely reported amendment of the Malawi Penal Code in July 2016 as a response to the violence. Parliament had also earlier amended the Anatomy Act to respond to the escalation in the trade of body parts of persons with albinism. At the end of an article published by the Daily Times on 11 July 2016 entitled ‘Parliament amends Penal Code’, the author hinted ‘So far in the history of albino killings only one convict was slapped with a life imprisonment sentence at Mzuzu High Court’. The news was also covered by The Nation online and Nyasa Times.

The newspapers have also highlighted other news that made deadlines including the visit to Malawi by United Nations Independent Expert on the rights of persons with albinism Ikponwosa Ero in May 2016 and the conviction of an abductor to life sentence in June 2016. Numerous other issues reported have updated the public about incidents as well as played an advocacy role to facilitate action from the public or authorities.

Presentation of violence against persons with albinism as a human rights issue

In terms of language and terminology, some media articles have called persons with albinism as albinos. Persons with albinism have expressed that the term albino is unacceptable and disrespectful. They have said that the term falls short in recognising them as equal human beings. The Nation online has consistently used the term albino in their articles to date. Nyasa Times have used the term interchangeably. However, the movements of persons with albinism as well as government do not use the term albinos. In the Chichewa articles, persons with albinism are referred to as ‘ma alubino’. This Chichewa term is a literal translation of albino. The term albino or alubino was the most common used term to refer to persons with albinism before emergence of the crisis in 2013. Whilst it may take time to end usage of the old terms, it is important that government and other relevant authorities support the calls for the media houses to discontinue usage of terminology and languages that the persons with albinism find unacceptable.

It has also been argued that the terminology persons with albinism recognises the people affected as equal citizens in terms of entitlement to human rights. Human rights for persons with albinism are now widely recognised as important rights in Malawi. President Peter Mutharika has condemned violence against people with albinism as a human rights concern as quoted in a press statement in March 2016

“The attacks are an evil and a threat to the basic human right to life for all human beings enshrined in the Republican Constitution which I swore to protect and uphold as President of the Republic.”

In a position paper entitled A free and not a fear society; bringing rights of children with albinism home, Bonface Massah, President of APAM noted that civil society organisations who work on human rights issues in Malawi were weak in engaging with the issue of violence against people with albinism as a human rights issue. APAM has stressed to stakeholders that issues affecting persons with albinism are human rights in the same manner as all other issues.

Opinion pieces in the online papers have also raised the human rights perspectives about the issue. In May the Nation online published an article entitled Protecting rights of people with albinism in which the author stated

Persons with albinism have rights which are being violated by these cruel attacks. One of the rights in danger is the right to life. The right is enshrined in various international instruments. These are the Universal

Declaration on Human Rights, The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, The African Charter on Human and People’s Rights and the Constitution of the Republic of Malawi. The Malawi Constitution enshrines the right to life for everyone and that no one should have his right to life arbitrarily deprived.

Thus, the right to life of persons with albinism is being violated by the spate of killings. Every human right calls for a correlative duty bearer. The State has a duty to protect persons with albinism from arbitrary deprivation of their right to life, liberty and security of the person.

In this article, the author identifies specific human rights in Malawi’s constitution and international human rights obligations to argue that the violence against people with albinism leads to violations of the human rights therein. By implication he proposes that Malawi’s human rights obligations domestically and internationally also includes obligations to protect human rights for persons with albinism. This discussion is important because ‘rights of persons with albinism’ have also been perceived to be a set of new rights for Malawi, although the emergence of the new rights haven’t brought any controversy as perceived in other emerging issues such as abortion rights or LGBTI rights.

In the same month in another article, Annabel Raw reported about an all-stakeholder conference on violence against persons with albinism that had taken place in Lilongwe and noted:

Persons with albinism in Malawi face violence and discrimination of the most condemnable and abhorrent kind. Human rights violations of this severity should be prevented and sanctioned with the most powerful means at our disposal.

In asserting and enforcing human rights, we argue that the means we employ must not only be capable of achieving our ends, but must also be ideologically, morally and legally consistent with our ends. A human rights-approach is vital to Malawi’s campaign to end human rights abuses against persons with albinism.

The participants to the conference proposed a human rights approach in responding to the issue. The calls for human rights approaches became even more urgent when a famous ruling party member of parliament held ‘naked demonstrations’ calling for death penalty for anyone committing crimes against persons with albinism. The outspoken former comedian received backing from the Malawian public, and in defence he told human rights organisations to ‘go to hell’. His campaign was widely reported in the press, and support to his calls grew along with the media attention. The support deafened caution against the death penalty, even from his own ruling government and political party. Whilst the campaign by the MP can be said to have been successful in its symbolic presentation of the issue as one that needs urgent attention, the success also exposes the significance of public opinion in perverting human rights in Malawi. The MP called for death penalty in order to protect ‘rights of persons with albinism’.

It is yet to be seen on how a human rights approach would be developed and implemented. Whilst issues affecting persons with albinism could be addressed in the context of existing human rights frameworks, the urgency and scale of the problem requires a specific approach tailored to the problem at hand.

Presentation in Chichewa

The Nation online newspaper has published some of its online articles in Chichewa. The presentation of articles in Chichewa serves an important purpose of bringing the issue close to the masses. English remains an elitist language, though widely understood nationwide, associated with the elite minority. The Chichewa articles also offers a glance into the discourse that is taking place in the local language, affording us to analyse presentation of issues.

As mentioned earlier, persons with albinism are called alubino in the Chichewa articles. For example, an article as recent as April 2016 was entitled ‘Alubino akufuna chilungamo’. Alubino is the literal translation of alubino. In English the title would read Albinos want justice. The term therefore serves the same function which has been criticized by APAM. However, in the article itself the author mentions a person with albinism as Bambo wachialubino, literally translating as a man who is albino. This qualification brings it closer to the proposed terminology of person with albinism. As Malawi is light on meanings, Bambo wachialubino could also be translated as a man with albinism. Therefore, although Bambo wachialubino may be unacceptable, Chichewa does not have much alternative language due to its lightness in meanings.

In the Chichewa articles, rights of persons with albinism is presented as ufulu wa alubino. An article describing APAM as an organisation promoting rights of persons with albinism states

Koma chigamulochi sichidasangalatse bungwe loona za ufulu wa alubino la Association of People with Albinism in Malawi.

Ufulu is the most common word used to describe rights or human rights among Malawians. However, ufulu also means freedom, and it has been argued that the deployment of human rights as ufulu can distort the conventional meaning of human rights among the locals. However, the media have used the most commonly known terminology about human rights.

Malawian media have therefore made efforts to engage with human rights in reporting on the issue as well as in their engagement with the public. They have therefore contributed to the issue as a human rights issue.

(Unintended) advertising of body parts by the media

A number of newspaper reports have emerged in Malawi in the period of 2015 and 2016 suggesting that body parts or bones of persons with albinism are sold at very high prices by the abductors. In April Nyasa Times carried a newspaper article entitled ‘K1.1billion offered for albino bones, killer tells Malawi Police chief: Blames Satan’. In the article, it was claimed that the agents dealing in bones of persons with albinism had offered K1.1 Billion (approximately USD 1.5 million) to a Malawian who had been convicted of murdering his niece. This article, and a few others which carried similar information, were criticised that they risked fuelling poor Malawians to perpetrate crimes on understanding that violence against people with albinism was good business.

Manyozo, one of the authors of this chapter, argued that the media reporting and language used in daily conservations might be fuelling the violence against people with albinism. Manyozo (2016b) argued that the kind of language that is used in the media to some extent was inciting poor Malawians on the perceived benefits of violence against people with albinism. This concern is also shared by Boniface Massah, the Executive Director of Association of People with Albinism in Malawi who said:

“‘You read some publications and become surprised with how unprofessional they report on such a sensitive issue.  To most of us, it becomes unreasonable when a media house publishes how much bones of albinos cost on the evil market. That likely motivates others to join the business,’ complained Masa (Chisamba, 2016).”

Prior to the article, Manyozo, one of the authors of this chapter, had published an opinion piece on Nyasa times entitled ‘hands off people with albinism in Malawi’ where he expressed outrage against the trade syndicates involving middlemen and buyers. He argues that if indeed the body parts costed $10,000-$50,000, only rich people could be part of such trade.

Concluding Discussion

In this chapter we have shown that the media has been a key stakeholder in the fight against violence against persons with albinism in Malawi. We have shown that media coverage of the issue raised awareness about the escalation of incidences of violence, abductions and murders of persons with albinism. We have also argued that their coverage facilitated public engagement on the issue, as well as construction of the issue as a priority national concern requiring immediate state response.

Using online coverage in three popular newspapers, we have discussed how the articles published constructed the occurrence as a human rights issue. We have also discussed the symbolic purposes of the news in terms of bringing the victims’ circumstances closer to peoples’ hearts, calling for authorities to act, and assuring the public that the state was responding.

We have however noted that usage of the term ‘albino’ is unacceptable among persons with albinism. We have also noted that some articles which attached a price tag to body parts of persons with albinism may have incited poor Malawians to consider committing violence against the victims.

Recognising the limits of our desk research, we recommend further quantitative and qualitative research into the extent to which the media coverage of the crisis influenced state response as well as mass public support to the issue. We also recommend further research into the best practices by the movements of persons with albinism in facilitating national response.

Authors: Bonface Tafikah Massah, Chimwemwe Manyozo, Alan Msosa, Timothy Mtambo

This Article was presented at the Advancing the rights of persons with albinism in Africa: A call to action’, South Africa, 7-11 November 2016. You can access the full document here 1608 The Role of the Media in Advancing the Rights of Persons with Albinism in Malawi (1)


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