The International Press Institute is outraged at reports that Malawi journalist Ernest Mahwayo faces a charge of “conduct likely to breach peace” for taking pictures of President Bingu wa Mutharika’s lavish home.

Mahwayo, 31, was released on bail yesterday – two days after he was first arrested for taking pictures of the president’s  58 room  mansion, Ndata Farm, which has caused consternation among NGOs who would like the president to reveal the source of his wealth, a report on the Maravi Post’s website said.

Mahwayo writes for the Catholic publishing group Montford Media and was working on a piece for its vernacular Mkwaso newspaper when he was arrested. Editor Father Andrew Kaufa told the Daily Times newspaper that he had sent the reporter on a “fact finding mission” after receiving a number of calls about social problems in the Thyolo area, where the president’s home is situated.

Recently, several hundred staff members were laid off from the Malawi public broadcaster and the privately-owned Blantyre Printing and Publishing, which owns several newspapers, reports say.

The Malawi Broadcasting Corporation reduced its headcount from 700 to 418, reportedly sending employees to work other government jobs at lower salaries; the Blantyre publishing group lost 44 employees – all as a result of Malawi’s worsening financial problems, which themselves were a consequence of “undemocratic rule and bad economic policies” that led donors to slash aid to the country, according to the Malawi Democrat.

“We are gravely concerned for the Malawi media,” said IPI Director Alison Bethel McKenzie. “For the past year, journalists have faced challenge after challenge from President Mutharika’s government, which seems bent on blocking any investigation into or criticism of its operations. The president must understand that a democracy can only remain vibrant if journalists are allowed to work without fear of imprisonment.”

Last year, President Mutharika threatened to shut down any media outlet that tarnished his image, IPI reported. In early 2011, an outdated law allowing the information minister to ban publications was updated so that he must now show “reasonable grounds” to do so – creating fear among journalists IPI spoke with that government was planning to put the law to use.

This July, protests against economic conditions were met with a brutal police crackdown that left several dead, and in which journalists covering the demonstrations were also targeted.