AT a time when many African governments are beginning to respond to internal pressure for political reform, the tiny land-locked country of Malawi continues to keep a firm lid on dissent. Rather than moving toward a multiparty system, as some other African countries are doing, Malawi and Hastings Banda, its ``life president,'' are sticking firmly with a one-party system.
Opposition to the party or to the president is quickly put down by an efficient state-security system. Government censors ban publications or films thought to be critical of the government. And a 1973 law makes sending ``false information'' out of the country punishable by life imprisonment. Malawi's tight visa restrictions for foreign journalists has made it one of Africa's undercovered countries.
These policies have given the country a quarter century of political stability while civil wars and coups have become commonplace in much of the rest of the continent. This stability, plus Malawi's pursuit of capitalism as many African nations experimented with socialism, has attracted considerable Western aid.
But stability has come at a high price, according to a new report by Africa Watch, a United States and Britain-based human rights group.
``Malawi is proof that repression can work,'' the report charges. ``Its stability has been bought at a terrible cost.'' It documents a pattern of detention of government critics, occasional torture, severe press restrictions, and lack of fair trials.
The government of Malawi has accused Africa Watch of ``interference'' in its internal affairs. A senior Malawian official called the accusations in the report ``extremely exaggerated'' and ``malicious.'' The government refused to allow Africa Watch human rights monitors to visit the country, unless the organization named its sources of information, which it refused to do. The group was thus forced to rely on Malawian exiles for most of its information.
One of Malawi's most-prominent human rights critics, exiled Malawian journalist Mkwapatira Mhango, and members of his family were killed in a firebomb attack on their home in Lusaka, Zambia, last November. Malawian refugees in Zambia told Africa Watch that they had seen Malawian security squads in Lusaka.
Mhango's death was not the first time critics of the Malawian regime have died under mysterious circumstances. Africa Watch cites the 1983 deaths of three Cabinet ministers and a member of Parliament who were part of a group that had advocated moderating some of the regime's excesses.
Hundreds of other critics have been detained without trial for long periods - one of them for 25 years, according to Africa Watch. And courts have sentenced many other critics to prison without defense counsel, the report alleges. High-security prisoners are sometimes starved to death, it also says.
Yet conditions in the prison where most of the detainees are held have improved in recent years, the report says. And the government has apparently taken action to limit excessive use of force by police. Malawi has won international praise in recent years for accepting hundreds of thousands of refugees fleeing hunger and civil war in Mozambique.
In its report, Africa Watch calls on donor governments, especially the US, Britain, and Japan, to protest rights abuses and to cut back on nonhumanitarian aid until improvements are made.