Human rights defender Charles Kajoloweka has released a report on the state of digital rights in Malawi. Our Staff Reporter JOHN CHIRWA caught up with him to unpack the big issues ranging from poor ICT infrastructure, increased online surveillance and exorbitant Internet costs to draconian use of archaic laws.
Q: What are the major findings on digital rights?
A: The Londa Malawi 2021 report, a Paradigm Initiative publication, established Malawi’s decline on the 2021 Internet Freedom rankings due to increased criminalisation of online speech as authorities intensified clampdown on critical journalists, social media activists and ordinary citizens. These included arbitrary arrests, police intimidation, prosecutions and convictions. Further, Malawi remains one of the countries with the lowest ICT penetration, estimated at 14.6 percent. It is also unacceptable that around 4.1 million Malawians have no access to mobile network coverage, eventually unable to use the Internet and other mobile services.
Q:How does limited access and costly internet costs affect the lives of the poor majority?
A: The high costs of Internet and mobile services and inadequate ICT infrastructure continue to shut out the poor, who are largely rural-based, from digital services such as mobile banking and money services that could help lift them out of poverty.
According to the World Bank Malawi Economic Monitor, this low ICT penetration hinders a potential of $189 million in additional GDP and $33 million in tax revenues per year. Poor ICT infrastructure, the prohibitive cost of internet and mobile services; low levels of electricity access and erratic supply are major drivers of this violent digital exclusion with the rural masses being the most affected.
Q: What are some of the positive strides highlighted by the report?
A: The report acknowledges the government’s emerging enthusiasm in developing a sustainable digital economy. Notably, in 2021, Malawi rolled out an ambitious five-year Digital Economy Strategy (2021-2025). If diligently executed, the strategy offers an incredible opportunity to address the significant gaps in the digital space, including violent digital exclusion. It recognises the investment in ICT as a critical enabler for industrialisation. Among others, the government intends to expand internet access from 14.6 percent to 80 percent of the population and broadband coverage to 95 percent by 2026. It also seeks to increase device ownership from 51 percent to 80 percent and access to energy from 12 percent to 20 percent. On digital finance services, the government seeks to achieve a 30 percent increase in mobile bank accounts; thus, targeting an additional 2.1 million Malawians. Crucially, the government seeks to review ICT taxes which are drivers of the high costs of Internet and mobile services in Malawi. However, the big question is whether there is political will to actualise this strategy.
Q: Why are digital rights important in this social media age?
A:Digital rights are not new rights. They are simply human rights enjoyed online. The Human Rights Council in 2016 affirmed that the same rights enjoyed offline must also be protected online. The Internet has become an enabler of rights such as freedoms of expression, peaceful assembly and association, labour rights and the right to education.
In Malawi, social media is increasingly shaping the politics, governance and economy. The ‘online army’ is growing in numbers and innovation. It is actively influencing policy debates and governance. Social media has empowered ordinary citizens as well as formal civic and political actors to speak truth to power demanding accountability and improved governance. It is, therefore, crucial to invest more in getting every citizen online.
Q: What do you make of the recent arrests of citizens for their online comments?
A:The rising clampdown on dissent and criminalisation of freedom of expression is of great concern that deserves urgent redress. Sections 34 and 35 of the Constitution guarantee freedom of opinion and expression. Internationally, Article nine of the African Charter on Human and People’s Rights guarantees freedom of expression and access to information. While at face value, Malawi has a permissive legal and policy regime guaranteeing these fundamental rights, they continue to face significant restrictions and disruptions. According to Freedom House, in 2021, Malawi’s ranking on Internet freedom declined, as the government intensified arbitrary arrests and intimidation of individuals, journalists and activists for online speech. In fact, within two years, Tonse Administration has arrested more people for expressing themselves online than any other regime since 1994. In 2021 alone, police arrested five individuals, two of whom were convicted using criminal defamation and cyber security laws. This crackdown on online dissent and the climate of intimidation smacks of systemic authoritarianism which may prompt self-censorship, especially among media practitioners, human rights defenders and other social media users.
Q: Moving forward, what are the key recommendations?
A:Authorities should uphold their human rights obligations in line with the Constitution and international law. Critically, the government should expedite efforts to provide equal access to the internet and ICTs for all citizens, including marginalised groups such as women and the poor. The authorities must also guarantee freedom of expression online and media freedoms. Specifically, there is an urgent need for authorities to repeal defamation and sedition laws in the Penal Code and reform the Electronic Transactions and Cyber Security Act of 2016 in conformity with Malawi’s international human rights obligations. Besides, the government must, as a matter of urgency, drop charges against all individuals facing unjustified prosecution for online speech. To safeguard the right to privacy, Parliament should prioritise the enactment of the Data Protection Bill, currently in draft, and also ratify the African Union Convention on Cyber Security and Personal Data Protection.