‘Govt is suppressing civil society’s space’

The Malawi Human Rights Defenders Coalition last week decried threats from the government machinery to silence voices geared at holding authorities accountable. The forum is made up of Centre for Human Rights and Rehabilitation (CHRR), Centre for Development of People (Cedep), Malawi Law Society and other civil cociety organisations (CSOs. Our reporter AYAMI MKWANDA caught up with CHRR executive director Timothy Mtambo, who is also the interim chairperson of the coalition to find out why the CSO’s are worried. Excerpts:

Mtambo: Some CSOs are being bankrolled by the ruling DPP to bring division in the civil society

In what ways is the Peter Mutharikas administration stifling those trying to hold his government to account?

The State has become paranoid to criticism on transparency and accountability; hence, it is using every trick to silence the critical voice. There are a number of ways in which CSOs work have been stifled as they fight for accountability.  State machinery has always worked hard to achieve that, such that during the Bingu wa Mutharika’s administration there was mainly a terminology like “smoking out” the CSO. The Joyce Banda’s mainly used the approach of divide and rule, this is a method whereby other CSOs are used to fight other CSOs which are pushing for accountability.  It is unfortunate, that the current government is now working even harder and has intensified its effort to divide and rule the CSOs.

Have you been receiving threats from the State?

Some State officials use verbal threats against those critical of the administration. For instance, we have seen the leadership describing those opposed to his policies as “stupid”. Critics have also been labelled agents of the opposition, “unpatriots” or hell-bent at tarnishing the “good” image of the current administration simply for holding the government accountable.

Branding CSOs as “opposition agents” is in fact one of the tactics being used to limit or in some cases entirely suppress civil society’s space. For instance, recently, following criticism over government’s handling of the proposed electoral law reforms, we have seen CSOs, including the Public Affairs Committee [PAC], being accused of colluding with the opposition to bring the government down. We have also seen a growing tendency of using chiefs to castigate and threaten those critical of the administration.

You claim that the current political administration is not offering enough space to CSOs. Can you elaborate more.

A government that wants CSOs to operate freely, does not work to divide it. Actually government must consider CSOs as partners in development. As stated above, there are State sponsored CSOs; hence, shrinking the space. There has been attempts to introduce Non-Governmental Organisation [NGO] Policy and review the laws, which is a welcome development. However, what is crucial is the contents behind the laws or provisions in the Act or the policy. It has been observed that some provisions are aimed to shrink the CSOs’ space, such as the proposal for mandatory registration, it limits the freedom of association, people should not be prevented from contributing just because they are not registered with the NGO Board.

Another point on the negative side is that the proposed reviews of the NGO act and policy are introducing unnecessary bureaucracies in terms of financial and programmes procedures in the name of accountability, this requirement has the potential of shrinking the CSOs space again. However, on a positive note, we are pleased to note that the government has been putting efforts aimed at improving and finalising the review of the Act and policy and we hope for the better outcome.

It is further regrettable and I strongly condemn the threats and arbitrary arrest some civic leaders and citizens have been subjected to. For instance, the case in Mzuzu whereby employees from National Registration Bureau [NIB] were arrested after the order by a Minister, Grace Chiumia and the arrest of Beatrice Mateyo during a march against gender-based violent, all these buttresses to the fact the current administration is never serious on human rights issues or even in ensuring that the CSOs have a favorable environment for its work. We expect to have a vigilant government, a government which puts concerted efforts in protecting and promoting the rights of its people.

How is the launch of the Human Rights Defenders Coalition going to be a defense against CSO’s attacks?

The establishment of the coalition provides an opportunity for human rights defenders to become more united. The coalition shall not only strengthen the relationship amongst human rights defenders but shall also help us to create a harmonised approach towards challenges encountered by human rights defenders in their line of work. Learning from experience and mistakes of the past, we realise that, as human rights defenders we need to work together for a common goal. We realise that our joint actions are much more effective than when we work alone.

Furthermore, the main objective of the Human Rights Defenders Coalition is to promote the rights of human rights defenders (HRDs). It was observed among the frontline HRDs that there is much emphasis on protecting the rights of other people and the HRDs have been left out. Hence, specifically the network will protect the HRDs at risk. It will be connecting the HRDs in Malawi to the global world. The network will connect the HRDs in Malawi to the southern African HRD network and Pan African HRD and through this connection advocacy would be much easier. The Network will also be a platform of capacity building trainings e.g. advocacy, personal security, institutional security and digital security.

How would you say the current administration has performed on good governance in the 2017?

This administration has badly performed on good governance. We have several examples on this; cases of corruption have been the highest ever. The cases of abuse of funds are escalating. Unfortunately, there is a blind eye from leadership on issues of corruption; it was observed that the president kept on defending the Minister of Agriculture, Irrigation and Water Development George Chaponda, when there was clear evidence of abuse of office and corruption which had happened within the ministry.

The way the government handled the electoral reforms, also buttresses how the current administration has failed in upholding the principle of democratic governance. The government was not transparent in the whole process, they did everything secretly and the bills were only presented in parliament after subduing to the force from CSOs. And despite themselves presenting the Bills in Parliament, the government ironically worked hard to shoot down the electoral Reforms Bills. This was a slap in the face of Malawians and to say the least this is hypocrisy of the highest order. All this just proves that the current administration is nowhere close to transformational leadership.

The current government has been full of contradictions such that it performs contrary to what it has put on paper; the government launched the Peace Policy but the same has been heavily massacred by the same government. We have seen political violence involving members of the ruling party but no serious action has been taken, including just condemnations from the leadership. The performance of State-owned businesses like Electricity Generation Company (Egenco) and Electricity Supply Corporation of Malawi (Escom), has been so poor and appointments of members of the boards and executive management have been against procedure and the law.

You said the battle between mainstream human rights defenders and ‘mercenary’ CSOs is real. Who are these ‘mercenary’ CSOs?

I cannot mention the mercenary CSOs but you will know them by their works. It is not a secret that some CSOs are being bankrolled by the ruling Democratic Progressive Party [DPP] to bring division in civil society. Such CSOs have been given unwarranted coverage on the state-funded MBC, castigating fellow CSOs in the name of freedom of expression.

Are there plans CSOs have put in place for 2018 to help consolidate the gains of democracy we have made so far?

NGOs will continue with their plan to develop different types of programmes to consolidate democracy and contributing to development as we have always done in the past. n

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