Malawians Increasingly Cautious About Exercising Right to 'Free' Political Speech (Afrobarometer Survey)

1 December 2017
press release

Accra, Ghana — Fewer Malawians consider themselves free to say what they think, especially when it comes to politics, a new Afrobarometer survey shows.

More Malawians 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.

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%).


Afrobarometer is a pan-African, non-partisan research network that conducts public attitude surveys on democracy, governance, economic conditions, and related issues in African countries. Six rounds of surveys were conducted in up to 37 countries between 1999 and 2016, and Round 7 surveys are being conducted in 2016/2018. Afrobarometer conducts face-to-face interviews in the language of the respondent's choice with nationally representative samples.

The Afrobarometer team in Malawi, led by the Centre for Social Research at the University of Malawi, interviewed 1,200 adult Malawians in December 2016 and January 2017. A sample of this size yields country-level results with a margin of error of +/-3% at a 95% confidence level. Previous surveys were conducted in Malawi in 1999, 2003, 2005, 2008, 2012, and 2014.

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