Freedom in the World
You are here
Freedom Rating (1 = best, 7 = worst)
Civil Liberties (1 = best, 7 = worst)
Political Rights (1 = best, 7 = worst)
Malawi's political rights rating declined from 3 to 4 because of intimidation waged by a group linked to the ruling party, and other efforts to crack down on the political opposition.
Fear grew in 2001 that Malawi was on the way back to the kind of authoritarian rule that preceded the 1994 election that brought President Bakili Muluzi to power. A group known as the Young Democrats that is linked to the ruling United Democratic Front (UDF) waged a campaign of intimidation during the year against the government's opponents and the press. The Young Democrats are a reminder of the Young Pioneers, who waged their own terror campaign against the opponents of the late President Hastings Kamuzu Banda. Fear of authoritarianism was further fueled when the minister of presidential affairs said in November that it was the right of the people to allow Muluzi to run for a third term in office.
President (later "President for Life") Hastings Kamuzu Banda ruled Malawi for nearly three decades after the country gained independence from Britain in 1963. Banda exercised dictatorial and often eccentric rule through the Malawi Congress Party (MCP) and its paramilitary youth wing, the Malawi Young Pioneers. Facing a domestic economic crisis and strong international pressure, he accepted a referendum approving multiparty rule in 1993. Muluzi won the presidency in an election in 1994 beset by irregularities, but seen as largely free and fair. The army's violent December 1993 dispersal of the Young Pioneers helped clear the way for the polls.
A justice and peace commission formed by the Roman Catholic Church in Malawi protested an increase in "state-sponsored violence" in 2001 aimed at silencing government critics. Four people went on trial on treason charges in 2001 after the government claimed a coup was in the making. Opposition leaders denounced the allegations as a pretext to crack down on its opponents. Parliament in November voted to dismiss three judges, one of whom faces charges linked to issuing judgments favorable to opposition parties. Also during the year, several members of parliament were dismissed, but a high court judge granted an injunction to suspend their expulsion.
Malawi's economy is dependent on tobacco. Higher production and better prices were expected to boost economic growth in 2002 and 2003.
The citizens of Malawi are guaranteed the right to choose their leaders. Suffrage is universal except for serving members of the military. The opposition appealed the results of the 1994 elections, which were considered Malawi's first generally free and fair multiparty elections. The results of the June 1999 presidential poll went to the courts as well. Three presidential contenders sued the electoral commission, contending that Bakili Muluzi failed to win votes from more than half of the eligible electorate. Muluzi won 51 percent, compared with 44 percent for leading opposition candidate Gwanda Chakuamba, of the Malawi Congress Party and the Alliance for Democracy (MCP-AFORD). The supreme court upheld the results of the election. In polls for the national assembly in 1999 the ruling United Democratic Front (UDF) managed to retain a narrow majority, winning 99 seats compared to 94 for MCP-AFORD.
Violence erupted in opposition strongholds of northern Malawi after the 1999 election results indicated wins for the UDF. Supporters of MCP-AFORD attacked mosques, shops, and homes of suspected UDF supporters.
The judiciary has demonstrated broad independence in its decisions, but due process is not always respected by an overburdened court system that lacks resources and training. A legal resource center has been established under the Law Society of Malawi.
Rights of free expression and free assembly are generally respected. Many human rights and other nongovernmental organizations operate openly and without interference. Police brutality is still said to be common, either while detainees are in custody or when they are just released. Arbitrary arrest and detention are common. Appalling prison conditions lead to many deaths, including suffocation from overcrowding. President Muluzi in July 2001 freed hundreds of prisoners to commemorate Malawi's independence.
Freedom of speech and the press is guaranteed. It is generally respected in practice, but there were a number of attacks on the press in 2001. The government has used libel and other laws to harass journalists. A broad spectrum of opinion is presented in the country's two dozen newspapers. The state-owned Malawi Broadcasting Corporation controls television and most radio service, which reaches a larger audience than print media do. There are four private radio stations.
In August 2001, a correspondent with African Eye News Service allegedly was attacked by members of the Young Democrats for insulting Muluzi. In May, the owner of Karora Printers and the editor of the independent Dispatch newspaper were charged with "publishing false information likely to cause public fear and alarm" following a series of articles about Muluzi that included allegations of corruption.
Religious freedom is usually respected, but Muslims were targeted in post-election violence in 1999 in protest against the ruling party. President Muluzi is a Muslim. Malawi is 75 percent Christian and about 20 percent Muslim. About 60 percent of Malawi's ten million people have no access to land, and the issue is a potential breeding ground for social unrest. The issue is unlikely, however, to produce a crisis similar to that of Zimbabwe.
Despite equal protection of the law under the 1995 constitution, customary practices maintain de facto discrimination against women in education, employment, and business. Traditional rural structures deny women inheritance and property rights, and violence against women is reportedly routine.
The right to organize and to strike is legally protected, with notice and mediation requirements for workers in essential services. Unions are active but face harassment and occasional violence during strikes, and there have been reports of union employees being fired for their political views. Collective bargaining is widely practiced, but not specifically protected by law. The tobacco industry banned the use of child labor in October 2001 after an international outcry and the threat of sanctions.