Civil society organisations (CSOs) have decried threats from the government machinery to stifle voices geared at holding authorities accountable.
The CSOs argue that the situation puts under threat the future of democracy and good governance. Malawi attained multiparty democracy through a June 14 1993 National Referendum.
In a presentation during the launch of Human Rights Defenders Coalition Malawi Chapter in Lilongwe, legal scholar Mwiza Nkhata, who teaches law at Chancellor College in Zomba, said while Malawi dealt away with the repressive one party system, successive multiparty administrations “have surprisingly inherited repressive tendencies from the old system such as shrinking the space for human rights defenders”.
But in an interview with The Nation, presidential adviser on non-governmental organisations (NGOs), Mavuto Bamusi, defended the current administration as exceptionally good in according CSOs their space.
During the presentation, Nkhata, who is currently conducting a research focusing on the civil society space and human rights defenders in Malawi, said the regimes have a tendency to use different tricks to attack CSOs, including using fellow activists to spy on their colleagues.
He said: “We have changed regimes, but things have not changed. Speaking against government remains an issue like it was in the past, if you do that you are subjected to attacks and threats from the State. This to me remains a worrying situation for our democracy.”
But Nkhata expressed optimism that the launch of the Human Rights Defenders Coalition will offer a solid defence against CSOs’ attacks.
He said it is important for human rights defenders and CSOs in general to remain vigilant of the enemy within and outside.
Malawi Law Society (MLS) president Khumbo Soko agreed with Nkhata, adding that it has become difficult to work as a human rights defender in Malawi because the State has become paranoid to criticism on transparency and accountability; hence, using every trick to silence the critical voice.
Private practice lawyer Bright Theu mentioned “State infiltration” as a major threat to the survival of human rights defenders.
He said it is difficult to distinguish friends from enemies within the CSO fraternity because some work underground as State agents.
On his part, Centre for Human Rights and Rehabilitation (CHRR) executive director Timothy Mtambo observed that the battle between mainstream human rights defenders and what he called ‘mercenary’ CSOs was real because the State has taken advantage of the weak CSO union in Malawi.
Responding to concerns, Bamusi said contrary to assertions, the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) administration deserves a pat on the back for expanding the CSO space through legislative and social approaches.
He cited the enactment of the access to information law, the review of the NGO Act and policy and the leadership’s willingness to dialogue with CSOs in case of misunderstandings.
On State infiltration, Bamusi, himself a former critical CSO voice before he was roped into the government system, said every CSO has a right to choose who to associate with including government. He said working with government must not be misconstrued as sell out because ultimately every CSO works to complement government efforts.
The Malawi Human Rights Defenders Forum is led by CHRR, Centre for the Development of People (Cedep) and Malawi Law Society.