Malawian journalist Raphael Tenthani relished watchdog role

May 18, 2015, 8:55 AM
In this photo taken Tuesday, Nov, 30, 2014 photo, prominent Malawian Journalist Raphael Tenthani poses for a photograph, in Lilongwe, Malawi. One of Malawi's most prominent journalists was killed in a car accident, his family said on Sunday, May 17, 2105. Raphael Tenthani, a contributor for The Associated Press and the BBC, was killed in a car accident outside of Malawi's commercial center Blantyre on Saturday at about 9 p.m., his brother Kizito Tenthani said by telephone. (AP Photo/Tsvangirayi Mukwazhi)
(AP Photo/Tsvangirayi Mukwazhi)

JOHANNESBURG (AP) — He was known as Malawi’s muckraker, a journalist who reported aggressively on a sweeping corruption probe in one of the world’s poorest countries and dished out tart criticism of politicians for alleged mismanagement and skulduggery.

Raphael Tenthani, a contributor for the BBC and The Associated Press who died in a weekend car crash, was buried Monday in his home village of Agabu. The large crowd of mourners included clergy, activists, politicians and businesspeople, said Thom Khanje, an editor who worked with Tenthani.

“Ralph touched a lot of lives,” Khanje said by telephone.

Tenthani, 43, wrote his “Muckraking” column in The Sunday Times of Malawi, dwelling on the woes of a small southern African country where food shortages loom, many people live in extreme poverty and the government has depended heavily on donor aid.

President Peter Mutharika expressed condolences, the government said in a Facebook posting. It described the journalist as a “patriot” who helped shape democracy in Malawi, which emerged from one-party rule in the 1990s.

This month, Mutharika announced plans to spur economic growth, help people affected by deadly flooding and increase anti-corruption prosecutions.

Tenthani was dismissive in a column a week before he died.

“President Peter Mutharika used tens of pages full of thousands of words and figures containing dreams, hopes, fantasies, truths, half-truths and complete fallacies to describe his fantastical state of the nation,” he wrote. “I will use only three words to describe the true state of the nation: Malawi is in a ‘state of flux.'”

Tenthani covered a corruption probe that began in 2013 under former President Joyce Banda and showed dozens of civil servants siphoned off tens of millions of dollars in government funds. In an AP report on May 13, Tenthani wrote that two high-ranking former military officers were arrested. They were allegedly linked to a deal in which the army paid $4.4 million for uniforms that were never delivered, according to anti-corruption officials.

Tenthani cited lofty quotations from thinkers such as Plato, Soren Kierkegaard and Noam Chomsky. He also dived into coverage of singer Madonna’s adoption of two children from Malawi and her charity work there.

“The pop diva looked relaxed as she used a trowel to turn the earth,” he wrote in a 2010 article for the AP about a brick-laying for a girl’s academy founded by Madonna.

Detractors accused Tenthani of slander and inaccuracy.

He referred to former President Bingu wa Mutharika, the current president’s late brother, as the “Big Kahuna,” or boss. A decade ago, he was briefly detained for reporting that Mutharika feared the presidential mansion was haunted by ghosts, an allegation that the government denied.

In 2011, Joyce Banda, then president, visited Tenthani in a hospital after he was injured in a car accident, reported the online Nyasa Times.

In the crash Saturday, Tenthani’s two sons were injured and discharged after hospital treatment, according to his brother, Kizito Tenthani. The driver and another passenger also had minor injuries.

Last year, Tenthani mused in a column on the 1999 death of Dunduza Chisiza Junior, a prominent playwright who opposed Malawi’s authoritarian rule.

“Although death is inevitable for any living thing, one wonders why this monster takes certain people in their prime,” Tenthani wrote. He concluded:

“Speaking truth to power is not a crime in a democracy; it is part of the game, we just have to live with it — whether we like it or not.”

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Malawian journalist Raphael Tenthani relished watchdog role