AD176: Malawians increasingly cautious about exercising right to ‘free’ political speech

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Thomas Isbell and Joseph J. Chunga

Under the one-party reign of President Hastings Kamuzu Banda, Malawi was described as a country “where silence rules” (Carver, 1990) because of the regime’s effective machinery for squashing dissent. This era ended with a 1993 referendum endorsing a multiparty democracy and constitution enshrining freedom of expression and of association (Malawi Government, 1994). 

While these freedoms include the right to join political parties and criticize leaders, Malawi’s political space in 2017 has been awash in media reports of political violence and intimidation involving the ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) and main opposition Malawi Congress Party (MCP) (Faiti, 2017; Gwede, 2017). Targets have included journalists (Kamtambe, 2017; Kumbani, 2017) and supporters of opposition parties (Muheya, 2017; Pondani, 2017). Religious groups, traditional leaders, and the international community have joined activists in expressing concerns about Malawi’s protection of fundamental freedoms (Khunga, 2017; Mwale, 2017). 

How do Malawians assess the state of their liberties? Results of an Afrobarometer survey last December and January show that fewer Malawians consider themselves free to say what they think, especially when it comes to politics. More are being careful in expressing their views, and most say they don’t feel free to criticize the president or security forces. Yet a majority say that in the years preceding the survey, Malawians were gaining greater freedom to function in political and civil-society organisations.