Malawi | Freedom House

Freedom in the World



Freedom in the World 2003

2003 Scores


Partly Free

Freedom Rating
(1 = best, 7 = worst)


Civil Liberties
(1 = best, 7 = worst)


Political Rights
(1 = best, 7 = worst)

Ratings Change: 

Malawi's civil liberties rating declined from 3 to 4 due to continued attacks on the press and opposition politicians by the ruling party's youth wing, and the president's attempt to ban demonstrations.


Political tension escalated in Malawi in 2002 as President Bakili Muluzi and his supporters attempted to alter the constitution to allow Muluzi to run for a third term in elections scheduled for 2004. The effort failed by only three votes in parliament in July, and the issue is likely to resurface before the next presidential polls. Muluzi in May 2002 banned demonstrations against the third-term issue, but a high court reversed his decree. A group known as the Young Democrats, linked to the ruling United Democratic Front (UDF), continued to wage a campaign of intimidation against the government's opponents and the press. Several foreign donors suspended aid to Malawi in 2002 following revelations that senior government officials and members of parliament allegedly benefited from the sale of strategic grain reserves as the country faced famine. At least three million Malawians faced serious food shortages as the result of floods, drought, and the sale of grain reserves.

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.

Agriculture in Malawi employs 80 percent of the labor force and the economy is dependent on tobacco. Wealth is concentrated in the hands of a small elite. Foreign donors accused the government of corruption and mismanagement in 2002, in part because of the $38 million sale of the country's strategic grain reserves. President Muluzi sacked the former agriculture minister in connection with the scandal and appointed a commission to investigate the grain sale. By the end of 2002, Denmark, the United States, Great Britain, the EU, and the IMF had suspended development aid, which had totaled more than $70 million.

Political Rights and Civil Liberties: 

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 MCP 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 UDF managed to retain a narrow majority.

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 electoral commission has shown bias in favor of the ruling party in the past, and there have been problems with voter registration.

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.

Rights of free expression and free assembly are generally respected. Many human rights organizations 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.

The Malawi Human Rights Commission in August 2002 said political violence was on the rise as political divisions deepened ahead of the elections in 2004. The commission said the politicization along the lines of ethnicity and regionalism was encouraging violence and discrimination. Brown Mpinganjira, leader of the opposition pressure group the National Democratic Alliance, was ambushed at a police roadblock in 2002 but escaped. Members of the opposition have blamed the Young Democrats for such attacks. The group is a reminder of the Young Pioneers, who waged their own terror campaign against opponents of the late president, Hastings Kamuzu Banda. An opposition leader, Danga Mughogho, was detained in September 2002 and accused of inciting demonstrations. Judges, lawyers, and journalists have complained of harassment and intimidation as well.

Freedom of speech and of the press is guaranteed. It is generally respected in practice, but there were a number of attacks on the press in 2002, allegedly committed by members of the Young Democrats. The government has used libel and other laws to harass journalists. The government in 2002 banned a debate organized by the Lilongwe Press Club about President Muluzi's attempt to run for a third term. A presidential adviser later assembled a group of at least 1,000 demonstrators in front of the Blantyre Newspaper Limited and allegedly incited the crowd to threaten two journalists who had written articles against a third term for Muluzi. In February 2002, a reporter was abducted from the offices of The Chronicle, and an editor and other staff members were assaulted by youths allegedly linked to the ruling party.

Despite occasional restrictions and harassment, a broad spectrum of opinion is presented in Malawi's two-dozen newspapers. The state-owned Malawi Broadcasting Corporation controls television and most radio service, which reach a larger audience than print media does. There are seven private radio stations.

Religious freedom is usually respected, but Muslims were targeted in postelection violence in 1999 in protest against the ruling party. President Muluzi is a Muslim. Malawi is 75 percent Christian and 20 percent Muslim.

Despite constitutional guarantees of equal protection, 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. However, there has been increased attention to domestic violence and greater effort to improve the rights of widows. Women employees recently won the right to maternity leave.

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. Collective bargaining is widely practiced.