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Trouble at Press

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A sense of unease has gripped the ranks of Press Corporation Limited (PCL), the country’s largest holding company, following what is seen to be the overstaying in the Press Trust establishment of two Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) stalwarts.

The two, Ben Chidyaonga and Peter Mwanza, who served in the Board of Press Trust until their maximum 12 years (six years for each term) expired in July last year, have also been appointed into the PCL Board.

This appointment is being seen by some in PCL as calculated maneuvering by the governing DPP strategists for the party to sink its claws into the Press system and turn it into its financing machine.

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If that were to happen, it would be a return to pre-democracy days when Press Trust, which currently has 49 percent shareholding stake in the Malawi Stock Exchange-listed PCL, was under the grip of Malawi Congress Party (MCP) and was said then to be the party’s single most important bankrolling apparatus.

It took a feisty legal and political battle to disengage Press Trust from the MCP stranglehold in 1997.

This led to the restoration of the Trust to the original intentions of its formation as a public trust for the service of the Malawi public.

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Now, among the ranks of PCL executive management, the ghosts of those MCP days seem to be stalking the corridors of the corporation again with what is seen as the more-than-desirable hanging around of Mwanza and Chidyaonga.

Chidyaonga, an architect by trade, is DPP’s National Director for Logistics, a key position which officials inside the party say deals with mobilisation of resources for the party’s activities.

The party promoted him to this position in January this year. Until then, he was DPP Regional Governor for the South.

Mwanza, a London-trained biologist, is a former cabinet minister and DPP Member of Parliament in the administration of late President Bingu wa Mutharika who founded the DPP.

Currently, Mwanza is also board chairperson for Northern Region Water Board (NRWB).

The two were appointed to the Board of Press Trust in July 2003, information on Press Trust website shows.

Their maximum two six-year terms expired in July last year. However, they were not immediately replaced until recently when surveyor Wilson Chirwa and lawyer Meyer Chisanga were appointed into the Press Trust board.

Now, while they were expected to be out of the system altogether, both Chidyaonga and Mwanza have been appointed to the PCL Board.

This has stirred discomfort among some executive management officials in PCL who argue that the appointment of the two has thrown the Trust, held in high-esteem in the country for its financial prowess, into a governance question.

A leaked documented conversation this week shows high ranking officials (names withheld) raising eyebrows at the appointment of Chidyaonga and Mwanza to the PCL Board.

“The two trustees, who overstayed their mandate, have been appointed to the PCL Board. Serious governance issues. Also these trustees participated in the decisions to appoint them to the PCL Board and also the decisions to appoint two new trustees [Chisanga and Chirwa].

“In both cases, that is illegal as it is prohibited by Press Trust Reconstruction Act (PTRA). Meaning that even the decisions to send them to PCL Board are null and void. Where is the rule of law we often talk about…?” reads a thread in the conversation

According to the conversation, Chisanga and Chirwa are “alleged to be strong DPP supporters”. This suggests that together with Chidyaonga and Mwanza who are now in PCL Board, they would make a DPP quartet in Press establishment.

The PCL officials fear this ‘invasion’ is a deliberate ploy by the DPP administration to get a grip on Press Trust and PCL.

“What they are… is exactly the opposite of the reason why the restructuring was done in the first place: to prevent political interference in the affairs of Press Trust and PCL. We are all asleep now as these people invade these structures,” reads one message.

Chairman for the PCL Board, Simon Itaye, said he was not aware of the appointments and that if there were any such appointments into the PCL Board, they would be discussed at the next board meeting.

He referred Malawi News to Press Trust instead.

Press Trust confirmed the appointments and while admitting the political colours of Chidyaonga and Mwanza, the Trust said they would not politicise the operations of PCL.

Press Trust Executive Secretary Patrick Mhango said Chidyaonga and Mwanza are “professional people of repute and would want to safeguard their reputations” by ensuring that they do not allow their political affiliations to influence their work for PCL.

“It is true that Professor Mwanza and Mr Chidyaonga are members of a political party or political parties. But I can assure you that for as long as I have been with Press Trust, during their tenure on the Board of Trustees, they never politicised any business or matter of the Trust.

“They, with professional integrity, served the Trust as a national institution and never brought their political affiliations to bear on any matter or business of the Trust. I cannot imagine that they would change this commendable attitude and seek to politicise the operations of PCL,” Mhango said.

He also said their appointment to the PCL Board has followed procedure as laid out in the laws governing the operations of PCL and Press Trust.

“The Trustees complied with all the requirements of the Trust Deed … and the rules of good corporate governance when they were making the decision to nominate the two persons. Internally, all the processes of the Trust were carried out to the letter of the requirements of the rules,” Mhango said.

He also dismissed the argument that the two had participated in the decision for their appointment.

“The decision by the Trustees was taken without any participation by the two persons. They were asked to leave the meeting when that item came up for discussion because they were interested or affected parties. The meeting debated the issue and made a decision without any input from the two. All proper procedures were observed,” he said.

The seven-member Board of Trustees for Press Trust includes Nancy Tembo, a Malawi Congress Party official who also served as the party’s Member of Parliament between 2004 and 2009.

Tembo was appointed into the Board of Press Trust in September 2005.

PCL, which is also listed on London Stock Exchange (LSE), has stakes in Ethanol Company Limited, Carlsberg Malawi, Limbe Leaf Tobacco Company Limited, Macsteel Malawi Limited, Malawi Telecommunications Limited, Maldeco Fisheries, National Bank of Malawi, Presscane Limited, Press Properties Limited, People’s Trading Centre Limited, Puma Energy Malawi and Telekom Networks Limited.

Press Trust is a Trust Fund which is administered for the benefit of the people of Malawi.

It utilises the resources it gets from its investments to fund social development programmes throughout the country in areas of health, education, social welfare, housing, sport, culture, scientific research, good governance, environmental conservation and disaster relief.

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