CIVICUS

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Malawi

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Last updated on 01.01.2018 at 17:20

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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Foreign activists sentenced and deported for investigations into uranium mining

Foreign activists sentenced and deported for investigations into uranium mining

In early April 2017, a Malawian court convicted eight Tanzanian civil society activists on charges of spying and trespassing.

Association

In early April 2017, a Malawian court convicted eight Tanzanian civil society activists on charges of spying and trespassing. On 13th April 2017, the court suspended the sentence and ordered the activists' immediate deportation from the country. The activists had been in Malawi to assess the impact of uranium mining on communities and were detained in December 2016. An investigation by Malawian and Tanzanian lawyers in December 2016 and January 2017 found that after being detained, the Tanzanian activists were denied their legal rights and mistreated by the authorities. Local and international civil society organisations condemned the arrests and called for the activists' immediate release. 

The detention, mistreatment and subsequent conviction and sentencing of the activists has further narrowed the space for civil society and civic activism. In addition, the court's initial negative ruling has had a significant impact on other activists who have conducted or have considered conducting similar advocacy, research and analysis work on the issue of uranium mining in the country. 

Expression

In March 2017, the High Court in Malawi freed three opposition leaders from the Malawi Congress Party who had been accused of exchanging treasonous messages on WhatsApp. Jessie Kabwila, Ulemu Msungama and Peter Chakhwantha were arrested in February 2016 but were released after more than a year of delays in their trial. The court subsequently cautioned the police against arresting people before finalising investigations. The court's ruling was welcomed by free expression advocates.

Peaceful Assembly

On 2nd March 2017, several civic organisations planned a demonstration in Lilongwe against government impunity and corruption; however, very few citizens participated due to fear of violent repercussions from the state. Many feared a repeat of the 20th July 2011 mass anti-government protests that left 18 Malawians dead and many other injured when police fired on protesters.

The main organisers - the Catholic Commission for Justice and Peace, Centre for Development of People, Youth and Society and Church and Society (Livingstonia Synod) are planning to hold more protests over several days, starting on 28th April 2017. 

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.