CIVICUS

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Malawi

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Last updated on 17.10.2018 at 10:31

Malawi-Overview

Civic space is protected in law but government intimidation and over-zealous policing in Malawi impede activism and civil society organisations’ operations in practice.

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Political party denied registration, while court orders restrict expression

Political party denied registration, while court orders restrict expression

UTM party application for registration declined by the deputy registrar, while courts perceived to be restricting freedom of expression as they develop a pattern of issuing orders to prohibit public discussion of corruption cases in the media.

Association

On 26th September 2018, it was reported that the office of the registrar of political parties declined to register the United Transformation Movement (UTM) as a political party in Malawi. According to reports, the deputy registrar rejected UTM’s application because it was not in conformity with some sections of the Political Parties’ Act. Justifying the decision, the deputy registrar stated that the application documents submitted by UTM used the abbreviation and deliberately omitted to make reference to the full name under which the group has been holding out (United Transformation Movement).

Following the refusal for registration, on 27th September, it was reported that Blantyre City Council denied permission to UTC to hold a political rally in Nyirande township. Through a letter addressed to the chairman of the party, the City Council's chief executive officer indicated that permission had been denied because UTM was not a registered political party. Observers however said that the decision to prevent the rally could amount to an infringement of the constitution which guarantees the right to freedom of assembly.

The UTM party moved to court to challenge the decision of the deputy registrar to refuse registration of the party. On 16th October, the High Court heard UTM's appeal, and adjourned the matter for ruling on a date to be communicated to the parties.

As reported previously on the CIVICUS Monitor, politicians from opposition parties have been facing restrictions as the government gears up for the next general elections in May 2019. Activists, human rights defenders and electoral candidates have also been reported to be facing intimidation and receiving threats.

Expression

Concerns have been raised regarding the frequency with which courts have been granting injunctions to prevent the media and political parties from commenting or writing about cases involving corruption, public officials and high profile individuals.

On 5th October 2018, the United Transformation Movement (UTM) was served with an injunction restraining their members from commenting on a high profile matter which involves the payment of K3 billion (4.07 million USD) compensation by the Attorney General to firms known as Sunrise Pharmaceuticals Limited and Chombe Foods Limited. These payments were made even as the government failed to collect K4.9 billion (6.6 million USD) in loans from the same group of companies.

UTM announced their intention to challenge the High Court Order because ‘the matters are in the public domain, …. [the] Order violates several freedoms enshrined under the Constitution of Malawi most notably the freedom of expression and the freedom of speech and [it] amounts to a gagging order’. Similar injunctions in other corruption matters have been reported. In cases involving former Admarc CEO Foster Mulumbe and former Roads Authority CEO Trevor Hiwa, the courts also issued orders preventing the media from writing or commenting on both cases. 

Association

People have the right to form and join associations without interference but there are several laws that affect civil society operations.

People have the right to form and join associations without interference but there are several laws that affect civil society operations. NGOs must register with the Registrar General under the Trustees Incorporation Act or the Companies Act. According to the NGO Act, organisations must also register with the Council for Non-Governmental Organisations (CONGOMA) as well as with the NGO Board of Malawi. The double tier process involves the payment of annual fees to each institution, an onerous burden for small organisations. The NGO Act also requires NGOs to sign a memorandum of understanding for any activities perform by the organisation. The NGO Board has the power to cancel or suspend registration of an NGO on various grounds including engagement in partisan politics. Since 2016, government has been developing a draft NGO Policy, which contains several restrictive provisions. In April 2017, the government introduced the Non-Governmental Organizations (Amendment) Bill, which was criticised for its lack of transparency and the government's failure to consult with civil society. Human rights defenders are sometimes subjected to harassment, intimidation, arrest and derogatory remarks by authorities, who occasion have labelled them as enemies of the state.

Peaceful Assembly

Protests are common in Malawi and large numbers of citizens have taken to the streets on a range of issues, including to speak out against corruption and calling for a more equitable distribution of resources.

Protests are common in Malawi and large numbers of citizens have taken to the streets on a range of issues, including to speak out against corruption and calling for a more equitable distribution of resources. Although there is no specific legislation that governs the organisation of demonstrations, the Police Act 2009 requires protest organisers to provide authorities with 48 hours’ notice. The Act requires authorisation for demonstrations within the precincts of Parliament, a State Residence, or a court. In practice, police forces have used excessive force, including live ammunition, to disperse protestors. In 2014 for example, the police shot and killed one demonstrator who was calling for a recount of votes in the presidential elections.

Expression

Freedom of expression is constitutionally guaranteed in Malawi.

Freedom of expression is constitutionally guaranteed in Malawi. However, this right is limited by other laws, including the Protected Flag, Emblems, and Names Act which prescribes prison terms for insulting the president and various national symbols. Defamation remains a criminal offense in Malawi. Violence and harassment against journalists were common under the administration of President Bingu wa Mutharika, but has decreased under subsequent governments. The Access to Information (ATI) Law was finally approved by Malawi’s Parliament in December 2016, and signed by the President in February 2017, after many years of civil society advocacy. There are no major restrictions on the internet; however, accessibility remains limited for many due to high costs.