Malawi | Freedom House

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Freedom in the World 2012

2012 Scores


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Freedom Rating
(1 = best, 7 = worst)


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Political Rights
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Trend Arrow: 

Malawi received a downward trend arrow due to the government’s violent suppression of public protests, intimidation of journalists, and threats to academic freedom.


The administration of President Bingu wa Mutharika responded with violence to antigovernment protests in July 2011, killing 18 people. International donors reacted by suspending hundreds of millions of aid dollars to Malawi. The government’s heavy-handedness toward critics was also increasingly evident in its threats to media independence, including the introduction of a harsh new press law, and academic freedom.

Following Malawi’s independence from Britain in 1963, President Hastings Kamuzu Banda ruled the country for nearly three decades, exercising dictatorial power through the Malawi Congress Party (MCP) and its paramilitary youth wing. Facing an economic crisis and strong domestic and international pressure, Banda accepted a 1993 referendum that approved multiparty rule. Bakili Muluzi of the United Democratic Front (UDF) won the 1994 presidential election, which was generally perceived as free and fair. He was reelected in 1999.

Muluzi handpicked Bingu wa Mutharika, a relative political outsider, as his successor ahead of the 2004 presidential election. While Mutharika defeated his MCP opponent, the MCP led concurrent parliamentary elections. In early 2005, a rift between Mutharika and Muluzi, who remained the UDF chairman, worsened after several powerful UDF figures were arrested as part of Mutharika’s new anticorruption campaign. Mutharika resigned from the UDF and formed the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), which many lawmakers subsequently joined. With the UDF and the MCP forming an opposition alliance against the president, the remainder of Mutharika’s first term was characterized by acute tension between the executive and legislative branches, sometimes leading to the paralysis of governing institutions.

Despite predictions that Muluzi would challenge Mutharika in the May 2009 presidential contest, the constitutional two-term limit prevented him from standing again. Instead, Muluzi and the UDF formed an alliance with the head of the MCP, John Tembo, and backed his candidacy for the presidency. Mutharika ran a highly effective campaign and defeated Tembo with approximately 66 percent of the vote. In concurrent parliamentary elections, Mutharika’s DPP won a total of 112 seats in the 193-seat legislature; the MCP took 26, and the UDF captured 17, leaving independent candidates and smaller parties with the remaining seats. According to international and domestic election observers, the 2009 polls were more free and competitive than in previous years. However, incumbents enjoyed a clear advantage due to the use of state resources during the campaign period and a clear bias from government-controlled media outlets.

In late 2010, Mutharika attempted to fire Joyce Banda, who had become Malawi’s first female vice president in the 2009 elections. Banda’s dismissal sparked a crisis because the vice presidency is an elected position that cannot be appointed or removed by the president. Although Mutharika claimed he had attempted to fire Banda for missing cabinet meetings, opponents asserted that the president was merely attempting to clear the way for his brother and heir apparent, Peter Mutharika, to assume the vice presidency. Banda refused to resign.

With Mutharika and his party enjoying dominance in the legislature, a new autocratic and repressive style of governance emerged. In January 2011, the president promulgated a harsh new press law, passed in November 2010, that empowered the information minister to prohibit any news story deemed contrary to the public interest. In February 2011, a lecturer at Chancellor College was questioned by police after comparing Malawi with Tunisia and Egypt, which were undergoing profound political upheaval at the time. The teachers union cancelled lectures in protest, and four lecturers were fired. The president intervened, condemning the lecturers for encouraging rebellion and closing the university via his role as its chancellor. In April, the British ambassador to Malawi was expelled from the country after a leaked diplomatic cable quoted him as criticizing the president.

In July 2011, discontent over recent economic turmoil and increasingly authoritarian governance led to public protests. Police shot unarmed demonstrators, killing 18 people in Lilongwe; the government forces insisted that the protesters had been looting. Journalists were targeted for beatings, and all radio stations were shut down. Mutharika declared that the protesters were “led by Satan” and promised to hunt down anyone participating in the demonstrations. Further protests were scheduled in August, but were abandoned when the government agreed to talks with civil society representatives facilitated by the United Nations. Activists quit these talks in September and held further protests. In August, the president dismissed his entire cabinet, temporarily assuming all portfolios himself, and in September, he appointed a new cabinet that included his wife. Mutharika also appointed his brother minister of foreign affairs.

International donors, after years of applauding economic management under the Mutharika administration, responded swiftly to the 2011 crackdown. In July, the U.S. Millennium Challenge Corporation announced that it was suspending its sole project in Malawi, a $350 million investment in the energy sector, which had only been announced in April. The British government, Malawi’s largest donor, suspended all its aid, as did the World Bank, European Union (EU), Norway, Germany, and the African Development Bank.

Political Rights and Civil Liberties: 

Malawi is an electoral democracy. The president is directly elected for five-year terms and exercises considerable executive authority. The unicameral National Assembly is composed of 193 members elected by popular vote to serve five-year terms. The 2009 presidential and parliamentary elections, though characterized by an uneven playing field in favor of incumbents, were the most fair and competitive since the first multiparty elections in 1994.

While opposition groups had questioned the impartiality and legitimacy of the Malawi Electoral Commission (MEC) in previous years, key observers concluded that it operated with sufficient transparency during the 2009 elections. Concerns have arisen over delayed local government elections, which have not been held since district-level assemblies were dissolved in 2005. In apparent contravention of a court order, the president suspended and closed the MEC in December 2010 after an audit report revealed that large sums of money allocated to run the 2009 elections were unaccounted for. This once again delayed local elections, which had already been postponed to April 2011 and are now scheduled to run concurrently with presidential elections in 2014.

The main political parties are the ruling DPP, the opposition MCP, and the UDF. The opposition was able to organize and campaign freely during the 2009 elections.

While President Bingu wa Mutharika has pledged to fight corruption, opposition and civil society groups have charged that the effort has been directed primarily at his political opponents. The new National Anti-Corruption Strategy launched in 2009 included a plan to establish “integrity committees” in public institutions. However, a February 2010 report by Global Integrity indicated that the Anti-Corruption Bureau has largely focused on low-level civil servants while avoiding high-ranking officials under political pressure. After years of investigation and two prior arrests, former president Bakili Muluzi was arrested in 2009 and charged with 86 counts related to his alleged theft of public resources during his time in office. His trial remained ongoing in 2011, amid delays for medical reasons. Malawi was ranked 100 out of 183 countries surveyed in Transparency International’s 2011 Corruption Perceptions Index.

Freedom of the press is legally guaranteed but has come increasingly under threat; journalists were beaten and detained during the July 2011 protests, and radio stations were closed. Despite government pressures, Malawi’s dozen or so newspapers present a diversity of opinion. There are approximately 20 radio stations and 2 television stations in the country. However, the government-controlled Malawi Broadcasting Corporation and TV Malawi—the historically dominant outlets in the country—display a significant bias in favor of the government. Independent broadcast outlets have been playing an increasingly important role, though broadcast and print media have been targets of government harassment. In January 2010, the government placed a ban on advertising at the largest independent daily in response to unflattering articles about the president’s family. In November 2010 parliament passed a harsh new media law, of doubtful constitutionality, granting the minister of information power to ban publications deemed contrary to the public interest. It remained in force at the end of 2011.

Religious freedom is generally respected. Academic freedom has come under attack, with the ongoing dispute over Chancellor College demonstrating the government’s unwillingness to tolerate critical opinions. Additionally, on September 24, a student democracy activist, Robert Chasowa, was found dead; the police verdict that he had committed suicide was discredited by the fact that the suicide note misstated his father’s name.

Freedoms of assembly and association have come under pressure in recent years, especially in light of the crackdown on the 2011 protests. Civil society activists have faced harassment, intimidation, death threats, and violent treatment from government forces and the ruling party’s own militia, known as the Cadets. The right to organize labor unions and to strike is legally protected, with notice and mediation requirements for workers in essential services. Unions are active, and collective bargaining is practiced, but workers face harassment and occasional violence during strikes. Since only a small percentage of the workforce is formally employed, union membership is low.

During Mutharika’s first term, the generally independent judiciary became involved in political disputes and faced government hostility; the courts have rendered several significant decisions against the government in recent years. However, due process is not always respected by the overburdened court system, which lacks resources, personnel, and training. Police brutality is reportedly common, as are arbitrary arrests and detentions. Prison conditions are appalling, with many inmates dying from AIDS and other diseases.

Consensual sexual activity between same-sex couples is illegal and is punishable with prison terms. Malawi faced international attention and outcry in December 2009 when a gay couple who had become engaged through a traditional ceremony was charged with gross public indecency. In May 2010, the couple was found guilty of engaging in unnatural acts, among other violations, and was sentenced to 14 years in prison. However, they were pardoned by Mutharika later that month.

Despite constitutional guarantees of equal protection, customary practices perpetuate discrimination against women in education, employment, business, and inheritance and property rights. Violence against women and children remains a serious concern, though in recent years there has been greater media attention on and criminal penalties for abuse and rape. Forced marriages and the secret initiation of girls into their future adult roles through forced sex with older men remain widespread. The practice of kupimbira, in which young girls are sold by families to pay off debts, still exists in some areas. However, Malawian women recorded significant gains in the 2009 elections, winning 22 percent of the seats, and Banda became the first female vice president in the country’s history.

Trafficking in women and children, both locally and to locations abroad, is a problem. Penalties for the few successfully prosecuted traffickers have been criticized as too lenient. A 2010 Child Care, Protection, and Justice Bill details the responsibilities of parents for raising and protecting their children and outlines the duties of local authorities to protect children from harmful, exploitative, or undesirable practices.