Freedom in the World
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Malawi holds regular elections and has undergone multiple transfers of power between political parties, though the changes were frequently a result of rifts among ruling elites rather than competition between distinct parties. Political rights and civil liberties are for the most part respected by the state. However, corruption is endemic, police brutality and arbitrary arrests are common, and discrimination and violence toward women, minority groups, and people with albinism remain problems.
- President Peter Mutharika remained abroad for a month with little explanation after attending the UN General Assembly in September, sparking speculation that he was ill or even dead. Upon his return, he criticized the media and opposition parties for spreading rumors.
- Three opposition lawmakers were charged with treason in February for their communications on social media. They remained free on bail.
- In November, the national ombudsman implicated senior officials in a corrupt scheme involving tractors intended for small-scale farmers.
The opposition Malawi Congress Party (MCP) won three out of five parliament seats at stake in November 2016 by-elections, with the ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) securing the other two. The Malawi Electoral Commission (MEC) had attempted to improve its performance ahead of the voting, relieving several officials of their duties in August in response to an audit that found alleged malfeasance, and implementing procedural reforms in October. Nevertheless, opposition candidates accused the DPP of disrupting their rallies, offering food gifts to voters, and using state funds for campaigning. An assistant to the vice president was accused of impersonating an MEC official during one of the by-elections.
Authorities took several actions that infringed on freedom of expression during the year. In December, the Malawi Communications Regulatory Authority (MCRA) fined a private radio station for what it deemed to be unbalanced media coverage, following an August interview the station conducted with an opposition legislator who was critical of the government. A man was arrested in February for throwing stones at a picture of Mutharika, and a student was arrested in March for insulting the president while travelling on public transportation. Three opposition lawmakers were arrested on treason charges in February for statements they made in a discussion group on the social media platform WhatsApp; they remained free on bail at year’s end.
In a positive step, however, the parliament in December passed an access to information bill that received praise from media freedom advocates. The president was expected to sign the measure in early 2017.
The prosecution of the main suspects in the 2013 “Cashgate” corruption scandal continued to drag on in 2016. Meanwhile, in November, the national ombudsman published a report exposing another corruption scandal, known as “Tractorgate,” in which the government sold off tractors that were meant to be distributed to farmers. High-level officials were identified as beneficiaries, including the parliament speaker, the foreign minister, and the president’s chief of staff. The ombudsman reportedly received death threats during the investigation. In late December, the attorney general obtained a court order that effectively blocked implementation of the ombudsman’s recommendations, temporarily shielding the officials implicated in the scandal.
Security forces repeatedly arrested protesters during the year. In March, more than a dozen youths were detained for an antigovernment demonstration in which they draped a coffin in the colors of the DPP. More than 30 students were arrested during student protests against tuition fee hikes in July and August; the protests eventually compelled the government to scale down the fee increases. In October, three activists were arrested for staging a protest over electricity blackouts. Separately, strikes remained common among public-sector workers, who often experience delays in their already low pay.
The killing and mutilation of people with albinism and a ritual cleansing practice that involves men being paid to have sex with young girls—both longtime problems rooted in cultural beliefs—came to the fore in 2016. President Mutharika called for additional efforts to address both issues. A law passed in July increased the penalties for albinism-related crimes. Child marriage also remained a problem despite a 2015 law setting the minimum age at 18, with experts noting that the legislation appeared to conflict with the constitution and customary law. About half of Malawian girls marry before the age of 18.
This country report has been abridged for Freedom in the World 2017. For background information on political rights and civil liberties in Malawi, see Freedom in the World 2016.