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Key findings
  • While three-fourths (77%) of Malawians feel at least “somewhat” free to say what they think, the proportion who feel “completely free” has dropped by 29 percentage points since 2014, to fewer than half (48%).
  • For the first time in five surveys over 14 years, a majority (53%) of Malawians now say they “often” or “always” have to be careful what they say about politics – more than double the proportion in 2003 (24%).
  • Larger majorities say they do not feel free to criticize state officials and leaders such as the army (76%), the president (72%), and the police (65%). Fewer respondents express the same reservations about criticizing local government councillors (46%) and traditional leaders (39%).
  • A majority of Malawians say that people “often” or “always” have to be careful about how they vote (62%) and about which organisations they join (52%).
  • Even so, a majority say the country has gotten better over the past few years in opening space for citizens to join political organisations (76%), for independent groups and opposition parties to function (54% each), and for the media to investigate and criticize the government (53%).

Under the one-party reign of President Hastings Kamuzu Banda, Malawi was described as a country “where silence rules” (Carver, 1990) because of the regime’s effective machinery for squashing dissent. This era ended with a 1993 referendum endorsing a multiparty democracy and constitution enshrining freedom of expression and of association (Malawi Government, 1994).

While these freedoms include the right to join political parties and criticize leaders, Malawi’s political space in 2017 has been awash in media reports of political violence and intimidation involving the ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) and main opposition Malawi Congress Party (MCP) (Faiti, 2017; Gwede, 2017). Targets have included journalists (Kamtambe, 2017; Kumbani, 2017) and supporters of opposition parties (Muheya, 2017; Pondani, 2017). Religious groups, traditional leaders, and the international community have joined activists in expressing concerns about Malawi’s protection of fundamental freedoms (Khunga, 2017; Mwale, 2017).

How do Malawians assess the state of their liberties? Results of an Afrobarometer survey last December and January show that fewer Malawians consider themselves free to say what they think, especially when it comes to politics. More are being careful in expressing their views, and most say they don’t feel free to criticize the president or security forces. Yet a majority say that in the years preceding the survey, Malawians were gaining greater freedom to function in political and civil-society organisations.

Thomas Isbell

Post-doctoral research fellow and research assistant at Afrobarometer

Joseph Chunga

Joseph J. Chunga is a research fellow at the Centre for Social Research in Zomba, Malawi.