Our Voices

Escalating Attacks on Malawian Civil Society Leaders

Ahead of Malawi’s upcoming general election rerun on May 19, government authorities have escalated their attacks on civic space, homing in on human rights defenders Gift Trapence, Reverend MacDonald Sembereka, and Timothy Mtambo—leaders of the Human Rights Defenders Coalition (HRDC)—for organizing national protests to advocate for electoral justice and free elections.

“We are extremely alarmed by the violent threats, arbitrary detentions, and malicious prosecutions being carried out by President Mutharika and his administration,” said Kerry Kennedy, president of Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights. “Free speech and peaceful protest are cornerstones of any functioning democracy, and this is never more true than in the context of elections. In solidarity with the citizens of Malawi, we join with the calls of Malawian civil society to demand that the government immediately stop threatening and harassing journalists and human rights defenders and allow them to freely exercise their fundamental rights to freedom of expression and freedom of peaceful assembly. In particular we join the calls to drop the baseless criminal investigation currently being carried out against Gift Trapence, Reverend Sembereka and Timothy Mtambo that amounts to nothing more than an attempt to intimidate and silence them in retaliation for their attempts to advocate for human rights.”

On March 8, President Peter Mutharika publicly targeted Trapence, Sembereka and Mtambo by name, threatening them that their “time is up.” Malawian police then arbitrarily arrested the three men in direct retaliation for their lawful efforts to organize a peaceful protest promoting free and fair elections ahead of Malawi’s general election vote. They were eventually released on bail on March 12 but all three continue to face violent threats and harassment from the administration. On March 10, the state-owned Malawi Broadcasting Corporation (MBC) broadcasted members of “Blantyre City Vendors,” a street vendors association, violently threatening on camera that they would kill Trapence, Sembereka, and Mtambo once they were released on bail. The MBC also shared this video on social media where it circulated widely, facilitating the spread of violent threats against the three human rights defenders.

President Mutharika’s administration has a well-established track record of routinely labeling HRDC leaders and other human rights defenders as terrorists. Charles Mchacha, Deputy Minister of Transport and Public Works, stated at a rally that “the HRDC terrorist” must be dealt with in defense of President Mutharika. Grezeldar Jeffrey, who serves as the Secretary General of the president’s Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), publicly boasted that she would be more effective at violently silencing Timothy Mtambo for his work as Chairperson of the HRDC than her male colleagues. Members of the DPP’s youth-wing called the “Youth Cadets” have also repeatedly issued public threats of physical injury or death upon journalists and human rights defenders who dare to speak out. Most recently, on March 13, the group was videotaped chasing down journalists from MBC’s competing news outlet, Zodiak Broadcasting Station (ZBS), and yelling: “No shady journalists here… if you come here we will skin you, skin you, skin you down your whole back like sweat running down it, with razors.”

The threat to civic space is not unique to Malawi. Political leaders around the world have increasingly restricted journalists, opposition groups, and social action organizations from exercising their fundamental rights—a disturbing trend that demands a strong and strategic global response.

Read more about what Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights is doing to protect and reclaim crucial civic space.