The internet environment in Malawi has been relatively stable in recent years, as internet freedom improved somewhat during the coverage period with no reported cases of connectivity restrictions or arrests for online activities. Online news outlets were subject to government manipulation via unofficial directives, though there were no reported cases of censorship or forced removal of content.
Malawi holds regular elections and has undergone multiple transfers of power between political parties, though the changes were frequently a result of rifts among ruling elites rather than competition between distinct parties. Political rights and civil liberties are for the most part respected by the state. However, corruption is endemic, police brutality and arbitrary arrests are common, and discrimination and violence toward women, minority groups, and people with albinism remain problem.
- Progovernment groups shared manipulated images of news articles on social media to sway opinions following the May 2019 elections (see B5).
- After the disputed May 2019 elections, which were subsequently annulled, Malawians took to online spaces to share information when the government banned radio programming banned (see B8).
- Online journalists and bloggers were physically harassed and detained while reporting on postelection protests (see C3 and C7).
Technology purchases and telecommunications subscriptions remain prohibitively expensive for most Malawians, resulting in low access rates across the country. Though no connectivity restrictions were reported during the coverage period, a network disruption of state-owned service providers in May 2019 raised suspicions that the government had orchestrated the blockage.
|Do infrastructural limitations restrict access to the internet or the speed and quality of internet connections?||1.001 6.006|
Score Change: The score improved to 0 to 1 because of an increase in internet penetration, according to some measurements.
Landlocked Malawi—with a population of more than 17.6 million1 people—has one of the lowest and slowest-growing rates of internet access in the world, in contrast to the exponential growth in access among its neighbors on the continent. According to the latest data from the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), internet penetration stood at 13.8 percent in 2018, the same standing as 2017.2 DataReportal, in contrast, reports an internet penetration rate of 15 percent as of January 2020, a four percent increase from the previous year.3 According to ITU statistics from 2018, fixed broadband subscriptions are extremely rare, at less than 1 percent. Mobile phone penetration is also low, at 39 percent,4 with the subscription rate down from 44 percent in 2018. The decline in mobile phone subscriptions may be the result of the removal of unregistered SIM cards during the implementation of SIM card registration in 2018. The number of mobile money users has also decreased, by 13.0 percent in the last quarter of 2019.5
The few users who have internet access experience slow internet speeds. According to the Inclusive Internet Index 2020 report,6 average fixed broadband upload speed in Malawi is 7.4 Mbps, while download speed is 7.7 Mbps. Mobile upload speed is 8.7 Mbps, with download speed of 5.4 Mbps. The report ranks Malawi as very poor on all four of its indicators: internet availability, affordability, relevance, and readiness. This is a reflection of the rising costs of the internet as a result of poor infrastructure management and lack of investment. Malawi’s flagging economy over the past few years has reinforced its status as a least developed country, with soaring inflation having had a negative impact on the information and communication technologies (ICT) sector.
Unreliable electricity and the high cost of fuel-generator power strain ICT use. Just 12.7 percent of the country has access to electricity, giving Malawi one of the lowest electrification rates in the world, according to the World Bank.7 Frequent electricity blackouts remain one of the country’s biggest problems, with slight improvement seen during the rainy season as increased water levels enhance hydroelectric generation. Inconsistent rainfall and droughts, which are expected to be increasingly frequent problems because of climate change, have a negative effect on power production.8 The sporadic and infrequent power supply adversely affects the delivery of internet and mobile services in the country.9 Half of Malawi’s private-sector enterprises rely on backup generators.
As a result of Malawi’s landlocked location, it is connected to the international fiber network in Mozambique, Zambia, South Africa, and Tanzania through the SEACOM and EASSy (Eastern African Submarine Cable System) networks. The fiber-optic network SimbaNET was launched in May 2016, establishing a connection between the capital, Lilongwe, and Tanzania.10 In April 2018, the Malawi National Optic Fibre Backbone Project was completed by the Chinese company Huawei, with the promise of faster internet service11 ; as of June 2020, the project does not appear to have produced faster speeds.
The country’s ICT backbone is entirely national in nature, with no regional integration yet in place. The scarcity of regional internet exchange points forces telecoms to rely on upstream service providers that are usually based outside the country, in Europe or North America. Data that should be exchanged locally within Malawi or regionally must pass outside Africa, resulting in an unnecessary and expensive use of upstream bandwidth.
- 1National Statistics Office, “2018 Malawi Population and Housing Census – Preliminary Report,” March 10, 2019, http://www.nsomalawi.mw/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=22….
- 2“Malawi Profile (2018),” International Telecommunication Union, February 24, 2020, https://www.itu.int/itu-d/apis/clients/res/pdf/country_profile/report_M….
- 3Simon Kemp, “Digital 2020: Malawi,” February 18, 2020, https://datareportal.com/reports/digital-2020-malawi; Simon Kemp, “Digital 2019: Malawi,” January 31, 2019, https://datareportal.com/reports/digital-2019-malawi.
- 4“Malawi Profile (2018),” International Telecommunication Union, February 24, 2020, https://www.itu.int/itu-d/apis/clients/res/pdf/country_profile/report_M….
- 5William Kumwembe, “Mobile Money Users Base Down by 13.0%,” The Times, February 19, 2020, https://times.mw/mobile-money-users-base-down-by-13-0/.
- 6“The Inclusive Internet Index 2020,” The Economist Group, February 27, 2020, https://theinclusiveinternet.eiu.com/explore/countries/performance/avai….
- 7“Access to electricity (% of population),” The World Bank, February 26, 2020, https://data.worldbank.org/indicator/EG.ELC.ACCS.ZS?locations=MW.
- 8“Climate change is making it harder to reduce poverty in Malawi,” The Economist, September 19, 2019, https://www.economist.com/middle-east-and-africa/2019/09/19/climate-cha….
- 9Orama Chiphwanya, “Improved power supply offers business relief,” The Nation, January 19, 2019, https://mwnation.com/improved-power-supply-offers-businesses-relief/.
- 10Andrew Ndhlovu-Mana, “Malawi boots Internet access: Kaliati says Internet price to fall by 75%, launches virtual landing point with SimbaNet,” Nyasa Times, May 6, 2016, https://www.nyasatimes.com/malawi-boosts-internet-access-kaliati-says-i…; “SimbaNet Malawi bags Best African Terrestrial Project in 2016,” CIO East Africa, October 12, 2016, https://www.cio.co.ke/simbanet-malawi-bags-best-african-terrestrial-pro…; “Measuring the Information Society Report – Malawi,” International Telecommunication Union, 2018, https://www.itu.int/en/ITU-D/LDCs/Documents/2017/Country%20Profiles/Cou….
- 11Nakirfai Tobor, “Malawi to enjoy faster internet speeds as the Malawi National Optic Fibre Backbone Project nears completion,” iAfrikan, February 2, 2018, https://www.iafrikan.com/2018/02/02/malawi-national-optic-fibre-backbon…; Chikondi Chimala and Tione Andsen, “Malawi: Huawei Hails Government On National Fibre Backbone Project,” allAfrica, April 30, 2018, https://allafrica.com/stories/201805010206.html.
|Is access to the internet prohibitively expensive or beyond the reach of certain segments of the population for geographical, social, or other reasons?||1.001 3.003|
Access to the internet is prohibitively expensive for the majority of people in the country, due to high data tariffs and expensive devices.
Low growth rates of internet and mobile phone access are largely the result of high service costs for consumers, which include a 17.5 percent value-added tax (VAT) on mobile phones and services, a 16.5 percent VAT on internet services,1 and an additional 10.0 percent excise duty on mobile phone text messages and internet data transfers.2 Consequently, access to the internet is extremely expensive for average Malawians. As of February 2020, a monthly data bundle for 10GB cost $22 with both Airtel Malawi3 and Telekom Networks Malawi (TNM).4
The country’s average monthly income is the equivalent of less than $900,5 which means that the price of the internet hits the country’s poor the hardest, as those without access are effectively shut out of an increasingly digital world of important services, such as mobile banking and money services, which could help lift them out of poverty, as well as access to essential communications platforms. In September 2017, the Consumers Association of Malawi (CAMA) criticized the failure of the Malawi Communications Regulatory Authority (MACRA) to address concerns about affordability and access.6 The situation remained the same during the coverage period.
Geographic location creates a divide in internet access. The high cost of infrastructure development in rural areas makes companies unwilling to invest in the country’s remote regions. MACRA has so far failed to implement the Universal Service Fund, which aims at increasing infrastructure in rural and hard-to-reach areas of the country. The electricity grid is concentrated in urban centers, giving 62 percent of urban households access to electricity, compared with a mere 5 percent of rural households. 7 A low literacy rate of 62 percent8 also remains a barrier to accessing ICTs, and there is a significant digital divide along gender lines.9
- 1“Taxation and the Growth of Mobile Services in Sub-Saharan Africa,” GSM Association, 2012, https://www.gsma.com/publicpolicy/wp-content/uploads/2012/03/taxgrowths…; Gregory Gondwe, “Internet VAT bites consumers,” Biztech Africa, July 24, 2013, https://www.biztechafrica.com/article/internet-vat-bites-consumers/6530….
- 2Wanga Gwede, “Malawi hikes tax on internet, duty on SMS: Goodall says local resources to finance 2015/16 budget,” Nyasa Times, May 23, 2015, https://www.nyasatimes.com/malawi-hikes-tax-on-internet-duty-on-sms-goo….
- 3“Monthly Bundles,” Airtel Malawi, February 26, 2020, https://www.airtel.mw/internetservice/databundle.
- 4“Hot Offers,” Telekom Networks Malawi (TNM), February 26, 2020, https://www.tnm.co.mw/ui/tnm-october/index.php/smart-data.
- 5“Average Salary in Malawi 2019,” Salary Explorer, May 12, 2019, https://web.archive.org/web/20190727203831/http://www.salaryexplorer.co….
- 6Grace Phiri, “Macra irks consumers over tariffs, network glitches,” The Nation, September 12, 2017, http://mwnation.com/macra-irks-consumers-tariffs-network-glitches/.
- 7“The Inclusive Internet Index 2020,” The Economist Group, March 2, 2020, https://theinclusiveinternet.eiu.com/explore/countries/MW/performance/i….
- 8“The Inclusive Internet Index 2020,” The Economist Group, March 2, 2020, https://theinclusiveinternet.eiu.com/explore/countries/performance/read….
- 9“The Inclusive Internet Index 2020,” The Economist Group, March 2, 2020, https://theinclusiveinternet.eiu.com/explore/countries/performance/avai….
|Does the government exercise technical or legal control over internet infrastructure for the purposes of restricting connectivity?||5.005 6.006|
Score change: The score improved from 4 to 5 to reflect a lack of connectivity restrictions imposed by the government.
There were no connectivity restrictions imposed during the coverage period, though outages during political events such as elections have been reported in the past.
On the night of May 21, 2019, a few hours after polling stations for Malawi’s 2019 tripartite elections had closed, NetBlocks reported a network outage “spanning several hours” in which nationwide connectivity fell to 80 percent of normal levels. According to the report, the affected networks were Malawi Telecommunications Limited (MTL), which is 20 percent owned by the government, the fiber-optic network SimbaNET, and the ICT infrastructure operator Malswitch (now called Nitel).1 The report noted that connectivity via privately owned internet providers generally remained available.2 The network outage was not noticed locally, perhaps because of the sporadic internet service supply, which generally has moments of outages. Adding to concerns that communications were intentionally disrupted, on the same evening, private radio broadcasters experienced disruptions for several hours. It was reported that only Malawi Broadcasting Corporation Radio 1, which is state-run, was unaffected.3
According to a report by the Southern African Litigation Centre (SALC) and the Media Institute of Southern Africa (MISA), the government denied that there was a network disruption and said that vandals had damaged infrastructure, causing a temporary shutdown. However, the report also noted that MACRA resisted the government’s attempts to shut down the internet, but that the government allegedly applied direct pressure on internet service providers (ISPs) to shut down their networks.4
There were no restrictions on connectivity imposed during the coverage period. The government of Malawi does not have centralized control over the international gateway, which the ITU characterizes as competitive.5
Malawi has a total of six fiber gateways to the SEACOM and EASSy cable landings, three each through MTL and the Electricity Supply Corporation of Malawi Limited (ESCOM). The state-owned Malawi Sustainable Development Network Programme (SDNP), a licensed ISP, oversees the local traffic hub that connects the country’s ISPs, but it does not have the capacity to block content or restrict connectivity.6
Article 24(2)(e) of the 2016 Electronic Transactions and Cyber Security Act provides that online public communication may be restricted in order to “protect order and national security,” while article 24(2)(f) provides that online public communication may be restricted in order to “facilitate technical restriction to conditional access to online communication.”7 These provisions are vulnerable to state abuse and could be used by the government to implement full or partial internet shutdowns.
- 1“Malswitch now NITEL,” NITEL, http://www.nitel.mw/index.php/news-room/81-malswitch-now-nitel.
- 2“Internet Disrupted in Malawi on Election Day,” Net Blocks, May 21, 2019 https://netblocks.org/reports/internet-disrupted-in-malawi-on-election-….
- 3Pius Nyondo, “Malawi experiences broadcasting blackout as results show stronghold for DPP. MCP held firmly,” Nyasa Times, May 22, 2019 https://www.nyasatimes.com/malawi-experiences-broadcasting-blackout-as-….
- 4“Navigating Litigation during Internet shutdowns in Southern Africa manual,” Media Institute of Southern Africa (MISA) Zimbabwe, August 14, 2019, http://zimbabwe.misa.org/2019/08/14/navigating-litigation-during-intern….
- 5“Malawi Profile,” International Telecommunication Union (ITU), March 28, 2019, https://web.archive.org/web/20191222160905/http://www.itu.int:80/net4/I….
- 6Author interview with IT engineer for a local mobile phone company on March 25, 2015.
- 7Malawi Government, “Act No. 33 of 2016,” MalawiLII, November 4, 2016, https://malawilii.org/mw/legislation/act/2016/33.
|Are there legal, regulatory, or economic obstacles that restrict the diversity of service providers?||3.003 6.006|
There are no legal or regulatory barriers that restrict the diversity of service providers. However, there is a lack of diversity among mobile service providers in the country. Mobile phone services are offered by three providers—Airtel Malawi, TNM, and Access Communications. The industry is dominated by a de facto duopoly of Airtel Malawi and TNM, whose internet prices are almost the same, eliminating competition between them. Access Communications offers no serious competition to the two main operators.1
Malawi’s ICT market is reasonably competitive with 50 licensed ISPs, the majority of which are privately owned, with the exception of SDNP.2 Political connections are often necessary to obtain licenses from MACRA (see A5).
MTL operates the country’s telecommunications backbone, leasing its infrastructure to most ISPs and mobile phone service providers in the country.3 Previously a government-owned entity, MTL was privatized in 2005; at present, the government retains 20 percent of MTL shares while Telecomm Holdings Limited holds the other 80 percent. MTL decommissioned its mobile phone service in December 2017.4
- 1Henry Lancaster and Peter Lange, “Malawi - Telecoms, Mobile and Broadband – Statistics and Analysis,” BuddeComm, April 22, 2020, https://www.budde.com.au/Research/Malawi-Telecoms-Mobile-and-Broadband-….
- 2Henry Lancaster and Peter Lange, “Malawi - Telecoms, Mobile and Broadband – Statistics and Analysis,” BuddeComm, April 22, 2020, https://www.budde.com.au/Research/Malawi-Telecoms-Mobile-and-Broadband-….
- 3“Measuring the Information Society Report – Malawi,” International Telecommunication Union (ITU), 2018, https://www.itu.int/en/ITU-D/LDCs/Documents/2017/Country%20Profiles/Cou…; “Co-Siting,” Malawi Telecommunication Limited (MTL), [n.d.] http://www.mtl.mw/wholesale-solutions/cositing/.
- 4Tom Sangala, “MTL abandons mobile phones,” The Times Group, April 20, 2017, https://www.times.mw/mtl-abandons-mobile-phones/.
|Do national regulatory bodies that oversee service providers and digital technology fail to operate in a free, fair, and independent manner?||1.001 4.004|
The telecommunications regulator, MACRA, lacks political independence because the regulatory body’s board is appointed by the president. Also, the regulator has strong links to the Ministry of Information, and the minister acts as one “advisor” of the regulator.
MACRA remains the country’s sole communications regulator, established under the 1998 Communications Act, to ensure reliable and affordable ICT service provision throughout Malawi. Its mandate is to regulate the entire telecommunications sector and issue operating licenses for mobile and fixed-line phone service providers, ISPs, and cybercafés. In practice, political connections are often necessary to obtain such licenses.
The institutional structure of MACRA is subject to political interference, with its board composed of a chair and six other members appointed by the president, and two ex-officio members—the secretary to the Office of the President and Cabinet, and the secretary of the Ministry of Information.1 The director general of MACRA, whose appointment is also overseen by the president, heads the authority’s management and supports the board of directors in the execution of its mandate.
Moreover, article 5(1) of the Communications Act2 stipulates that “the authority may, where necessary, seek the general direction of the minister as to the manner in which it is to carry out its duties.” It is then not surprising that by its own admission, MACRA has a checkered public reputation. In its 2015–20 Strategic Plan, the regulator states that one of its weaknesses is a perceived bias in regulation by operators.3
- 1“Media Sustainability Index 2012 – Malawi,” International Research & Exchanges Board (IREX), 2012, https://www.irex.org/sites/default/files/pdf/media-sustainability-index….
- 2Malawi Communications Regulatory Authority (MACRA), “Communications Act No. 34 of 2016,” March 12, 2019 https://www.macra.org.mw/?wpdmpro=communications-act-2016.
- 3Malawi Communications Regulatory Authority (MACRA), “Strategic Plan 2015 – 2020,” [n.d.], https://dokumen.tips/documents/macra-strategic-plan-2015-2020.html.
Online content remained uncensored during the coverage period, although online news outlets were subject to government manipulation via unofficial directives. Malawians used social media to coordinate protests in the aftermath of the highly controversial (and later annulled) May 2019 election. Diversity of content online remains limited.
|Does the state block or filter, or compel service providers to block or filter, internet content?||6.006 6.006|
While past regimes have censored internet content,1 the current government does not block or filter content aside from child sexual abuse images. Social media platforms are widely available.
- 1During violent anti-government protests in July 2011, MACRA reportedly ordered ISPs to block certain news websites and social media networks, including Facebook and Twitter, in a supposed effort to quell the spread of violence. See Michael Malakata, “Malawi blocks social media networks to quell protests,” Computer World, July 22, 2011, https://web.archive.org/web/20110726185847/http://news.idg.no/cw/art.cf….
|Do state or nonstate actors employ legal, administrative, or other means to force publishers, content hosts, or digital platforms to delete content?||3.003 4.004|
There were no publicly reported cases of content removal in Malawi during the coverage period. However, according to Moses Michael-Phiri—a news editor with Nation Publications Limited (NPL), which publishes a daily print and online newspaper—forced content removal is common. According to Phiri, top government and ruling party officials, including a government minister, ordered NPL to remove content on at least three occasions during the coverage period.1
- 1Author interview with Moses Michael Phiri, news editor at Nation Publications Limited, on February 26, 2020.
|Do restrictions on the internet and digital content lack transparency, proportionality to the stated aims, or an independent appeals process?||3.003 4.004|
While there were no cases of restrictions on internet usage during the coverage period, the 2016 Electronic Transactions and Cyber Security Act contains vague provisions that could be used by the government to restrict online content. Article 24 allows for restrictions on online public communications to “protect public order and national security,” a broad provision that is open to abuse.1 The same article would also “facilitate technical restriction to conditional access to online communication,” an unclear statement that could be interpreted to enable network shutdowns or blocks on social media platforms.
Without central control over infrastructure, the most direct way for the government to restrict connection would be through an agreement with private telecommunications operators.2 Malawi has no laws prohibiting the government from doing so, and recent government suggestions that it could partner with telecommunications providers on monitoring programs suggest that it could also restrict content through such partnership agreements (see C6).
Instances of content removal via unofficial directive are public and cannot be appealed.
- 1“Malawi Parliament Rejects Bill to Gag Online Media,” Media Institute of Southern Africa (MISA) Malawi, November 29, 2015, http://malawi.misa.org/2015/11/29/malawi-parliament-rejects-bill-to-gag….
- 2Author interview with Bram Fudzulani, IT Association of Malawi President, on March 12, 2019.
|Do online journalists, commentators, and ordinary users practice self-censorship?||3.003 4.004|
Internet users and commentators are generally open to discussing topics of a controversial nature. However, recent arrests of individuals for posts on social media add to a climate of intimidation that prompts a degree of self-censorship, particularly among media professionals and social media users.1 Online journalists usually exhibit caution when handling news associated with ethnic, racial, or religious minorities.
- 1Jameson Chauluka, “CSOs Condemn ‘intimidatory’ Arrest,” The Times Group, April 11, 2019, https://times.mw/csos-condemn-intimidatory-arrest/.
|Are online sources of information controlled or manipulated by the government or other powerful actors to advance a particular political interest?||2.002 4.004|
Online news is subject to government manipulation via government directives to media organizations and individual journalists. Discussions with journalists reveal that their articles are sometimes never published online or in print because their editors received directives from officials to refrain from publishing about certain topics (see B2). Some newspaper journalists who opt for anonymity also indicate that they have received queries from politicians, both in opposition and in government, demanding to have positive news articles and reports concerning them prioritized and given prominence as main stories.1
In the aftermath of the May 2019 tripartite elections, progovernment groups shared manipulated images of newspaper front pages on social media to suit their political interests and influence public opinion. News organisations in Malawi routinely post pictures of the front and back pages of newspapers on social media as a way of advertising. Progovernment and ruling party groups manipulated images of newspaper front pages to suit their interests and circulated them online, misleading the public.2
The 1967 Protected Flag, Emblems and Names Act and the 1947 Printed Publications Act both restrict the media from reporting on the president.3
- 1Conversation with two newspaper journalists in February 2020.
- 2“FAKE: Alleged Daily Times Recent Front Page Picture,” Fake Watch Africa, May 17, 2019, https://medium.com/@FakeWatchAfrica/fake-alleged-daily-times-recent-fro…. Another example, provided by the author: after Timothy Mtambo, a leader of the Human Rights Defenders Coalition and a protest organizer, survived a shooting attempt, The Sunday Times ran a cover with a leading story headlined “I Survived Assassination Attempt by Grace – Mtambo.” That same day, a manipulated version of The Sunday Times cover circulated online with the headline “I Faked Assassination Attempt for Sympathy – Mtambo.”
- 3“Freedom of the Press 2017 - Malawi,” Freedom House, 2017, https://web.archive.org/web/20170510163740/https://freedomhouse.org/rep….
|Are there economic or regulatory constraints that negatively affect users’ ability to publish content online?||1.001 3.003|
The high cost of registering a domain is an obstacle to publishing locally produced content, while a complicated online payment system limits content hosted on foreign domains. The SDDP administers the .mw domain on behalf of the Malawian government.1 The cost of registering a new .mw domain is $40, with a $40 annual fee for the renewal of the domain.2
Malawians also face limitations when trying to access foreign domains, because of the country’s limited option for online payments. The online payment system is complicated, requiring users to have a foreign currency account or Visa card in order to complete a transaction; the majority of Malawians do not have such accounts.3 Furthermore, the rate of online advertising is low because of a limited understanding of the internet among businesses, which are hesitant to advertise with independent media outlets. It is also difficult for online publications to attract large amounts of advertising because of the high expense of the internet, which makes it accessible by only few, often urban-based Malawians (see A1 and A2).
- 1“Domains on .MW,” Malawi SDNP, accessed on February 26, 2020, http://www.registrar.mw/index.php.
- 2“SDNP .mw ccTLD Registry Fees Policy,” Malawi SDNP, accessed on February 26, 2020, http://www.registrar.mw/policies/SDNP-dot-MW-Fees-Policy-ver-1.2.pdf.
- 3Author interview with a newspaper editor, who requested anonymity.
|Does the online information landscape lack diversity?||2.002 4.004|
Even though the online landscape in Malawi is generally open and free, the space does not reflect a wide diversity of viewpoints, primarily due to the low level of internet use (see A1 and A2). In addition, economic conditions make it difficult for local journalists and media groups to launch online outlets, and the few local publications available online are also limited in their coverage because of a lack of editorial staff. The dominant local news organizations posting original content are traditional media outlets that have also established online platforms. Many of the discussions on online platforms are in English, which is the official language of the country but is spoken by only a minority.1
Nevertheless, Malawi’s blogosphere has continued to grow. Prominent bloggers tend to be employed as full-time journalists; they often publish content on their blogs that they know their media employers are unlikely to publish because of editorial pressure or concerns about reprisals from criticized individuals or bodies.2 Some cultural topics remain taboo.
Foreign news and other websites are readily available and contribute to the diversity of content that Malawians have access to—though not much of what is published by these websites addresses local issues.
- 1Bruce Mutsvairo and Massimo Ragnedda, “Emerging political narratives on Malawian digital spaces,” Communicatio, 2017, pp. 147-167, https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/02500167.2017.1331926.
- 2Author interview with a journalist and blogger, who provided the information in confidence.
|Do conditions impede users’ ability to mobilize, form communities, and campaign, particularly on political and social issues?||5.005 6.006|
Online mobilization tools are available to users in Malawi, and digital activism for political or social causes occurs occasionally. For example, in June 2019, MACRA, citing security reasons, banned radio phone-in programs and live radio programming following sustained public demonstrations across the country against the country’s electoral body, yet Malawians were able to discuss issues freely on social media platforms.1
The most influential ICT tool remains the mobile phone. Messaging platforms such as WhatsApp are regularly used to organize campaigns and demonstrations, garner political support, and conduct opinion polls. In the lead-up to the 2019 tripartite elections, news organizations and outlets such as the Zodiak Broadcasting Station (ZBS) and the Times Group used livestreams on Facebook to cover events such as political rallies, the presentation of presidential nomination papers, and presidential debates. The use of social media for this purpose is a new phenomenon in Malawi.
In late 2018, Malawians successfully used an online petition to force the government to backtrack on its decision to erect a statue of Mahatma Gandhi in the country’s commercial capital, Blantyre.2
- 1Andrew Nyondo, “Court reserves ruling on phone-in programmes ban,” The Nation, September 17, 2019, https://mwnation.com/court-reserves-ruling-on-phone-in-programmes-ban/; Lameck Masina, “Malawi Broadcasters, Media Freedom Group Criticize Call-In Shows Suspension,” VOA News, June 10, 2019, https://www.voanews.com/press-freedom/malawi-broadcasters-media-freedom….
- 2Rex Chikoko, “Group against Gandhi statue,” The Nation, October 10, 2018, https://www.mwnation.com/group-against-gandhi-statue/; “Petition Update: The Blantyre City Council Fails to Vacate Our Injunction,” Change.org, December 21, 2018, https://www.change.org/p/the-mayor-of-blantyre-stop-erecting-mahatma-ga…; “Malawi court halts work on Gandhi statue after critics brand him racist,” BBC News, October 31, 2018, https://www.bbc.com/news/world-africa-46051184.
Journalists and bloggers faced harassment and violence during the tensions of the 2019 electoral period, contributing to a climate of intimidation that persists for media professionals and social media users in general. The biometric national ID system is now required for many public transactions, raising concerns that the mass data collection may enable surveillance.
|Do the constitution or other laws fail to protect rights such as freedom of expression, access to information, and press freedom, including on the internet, and are they enforced by a judiciary that lacks independence?||3.003 6.006|
Malawi has strong constitutional guarantees for freedoms of the press and expression, and the constitution is the supreme law of the land—meaning that any law that contradicts it should be invalidated. However, there are a number of laws that restrict freedom of expression in practice (see C2).
While judicial appointment processes lack transparency, the judiciary is generally regarded as independent.1 The Constitutional Court’s annulment of the controversial May 2019 presidential election in February 2020 strengthened the perception of judicial independence.2
- 1“Most Malawians see legal challenge to election results as justified, courts as impartial and trustworthy,” Afrobarometer, February 4, 2020, http://afrobarometer.org/sites/default/files/publications/Dispatches/ab…; “Freedom in the World 2019 - Malawi,” Freedom House, 2019, https://freedomhouse.org/country/malawi/freedom-world/2019.
- 2Jimmy Kainja, “Malawi Court Orders Fresh Elections. What Now?,” African Arguments, February 4, 2020, https://africanarguments.org/2020/02/04/malawi-court-orders-fresh-elect….
|Are there laws that assign criminal penalties or civil liability for online activities?||1.001 4.004|
Libel is punishable by up to two years’ imprisonment if prosecuted as a criminal charge, although most libel cases are processed as civil offenses or settled out of court.
In an effort to provide a regulatory framework for ICTs and address cybercrime, the parliament in July 2016 passed the controversial Electronic Transactions and Cyber Security Act, which came into force in June 2017.1 Article 24 allows for restrictions on online public communications deemed necessary to “protect public order and national security.”2 The same article would also “facilitate technical restriction to conditional access to online communication,” another unclear provision that could be interpreted to enable network shutdowns or blocks of social media platforms.3 Article 87 penalizes “offensive” electronic communication that disturbs the privacy rights of any person with fines or a prison sentence of up to a year, a provision that public officials could exploit to punish critical speech by online journalists or internet users.4 Article 52 of the law also places vague restrictions on encryption (see C4).
- 1Moses Michael-Phiri, “Malawi tightens grip on Internet usage,” Anadolu Agency, June 20, 2017, http://aa.com.tr/en/africa/malawi-tightens-grip-on-internet-usage/845555.
- 2Media Institute of Southern Africa (Windhoek), “Southern Africa: Malawi Parliament Rejects Bill to Gag Online Media,” AllAfrica, November 29, 2015, https://allafrica.com/stories/201511303064.html.
- 3Malawi Government, “Electronic Transactions and Cyber Security Act No. 33 of 2016,” November 4, 2016, https://malawilii.org/mw/legislation/act/2016/33.
- 4Malawi Government, “Electronic Transactions and Cyber Security Act No. 33 of 2016,” November 4, 2016, https://malawilii.org/mw/legislation/act/2016/33.
|Are individuals penalized for online activities?||4.004 6.006|
Score change: The score improved from a 3 to a 4 because no cases of people being penalized for their online activities were reported during the coverage period.
There is a pattern of internet users being penalized for online activities in Malawi. During the coverage period, a blogger was arrested in the course of his reporting, although the arrest was not explicitly connected to his online activity.
In January 2020, police at Kamuzu International Airport in Lilongwe detained three journalists, including blogger and NPL journalist Golden Matonga, and charged them with disorderly conduct.1 The journalists were at the airport to cover the arrival of a European Union electoral observer mission. The journalists were released on bail; as of June 2020, the case had not proceeded.
In April 2019, Tumpale Makibinga was arrested in Blantyre for a meme he posted on social media that likened the cartoon character Rango to Malawi’s first lady, Gertrude Mutharika. He was charged with insulting the modesty of a woman, cyberviolation, and offensive communication, and held for three days before being released on bail. The bail conditions include a bond and a restraining order stopping Makibinga from posting anything on social media relating to Mutharika. He appeared in court in 2019 but the case was adjourned.2 As of February 2020, he remained on bail, with no public word of when he will reappear in court.
In August 2018, social media activist Manes Winnie Chitedze Hale was arrested for allegedly insulting the president on her Facebook page.3 The arrest came days after the president had publicly threatened to use the Protected Flag, Emblems and Names Act to prosecute those who insult him.4 Hale was granted bail but faced up to two years in prison if convicted.5 The state withdrew the case a week later, without giving any clear reasons for the withdrawal.6
- 1“Malawi detains, charges 3 journalists seeking to cover EU delegation’s return,” Committee to Protect Journalists, January 10, 2020, https://cpj.org/2020/01/malawi-detains-charges-3-journalists-seeking-to…; “Ill-fated EU Mission landed me in jail, but itself into political firestorm,” Golden Matonga Today, January 10, 2020, https://goldenmatonga.wordpress.com/2020/01/10/ill-fated-eu-mission-lan….
- 2Green Muheya, “Tumpale released on bail, charged for likening Malawi’s First Lady to Rango cartoon,” Nyasa Times, April 11, 2019 https://www.nyasatimes.com/tumpale-released-in-bail-charged-for-likenin…; “Blantyre Magistrate Court adjourns case of Tumpale Makibinga,” Face of Malawi, April 11, 2019, https://www.faceofmalawi.com/2019/04/11/blantyre-magistrate-court-adjou….
- 3“Police arrest UTM vocal social media activist ‘Abiti Manice’: Accused of insulting Malawi President,” Nyasa Times, August 21, 2018, https://www.nyasatimes.com/police-arrest-utm-vocal-social-media-activis….
- 4Yvonnie Sundu, “US-Malawi ties on edge,” The Nation, August 22, 2018, https://mwnation.com/us-malawi-ties-on-edge/.
- 5Yvonnie Sundu, “UTM celebrates Hale’s bail,” The Nation, August 23, 2018, https://mwnation.com/utm-celebrates-hales-bail/.
- 6Jonathan Pasungwi, “State withdrawals Manes Hale Case,” The Nation, August 28, 2018, https://mwnation.com/state-withdraws-manes-hale-case/.
|Does the government place restrictions on anonymous communication or encryption?||3.003 4.004|
The government requires the use of official documents to register SIM cards, undermining ability of Malawians to communicate anonymously via mobile phones. SIM card registration is mandatory in Malawi, as stipulated by the 2016 Communications Act,1 and requires proof of identity, limiting anonymous communication. Accepted documents include national identity cards, driver’s licenses, and passports.2
MACRA announced in 2018 that SIM cards that were not registered by September 30, 2018, would not be able to access phone services.3 As a way of enforcing the SIM registration, the parliamentary Legal Affairs Committee stated that those who used unregistered SIM cards after the deadline would be fined 5 million kwacha ($7,000) and face five years’ imprisonment.4 This punishment, which Section 93 of the Communications Act proscribes to people who sell SIM cards in violation of the law,5 was not enforced. SIM cards that were not registered by the deadline were deactivated.6
Similarly, article 31(1)(a) of the Electronic Transactions and Cyber Security Act mandates that online content providers must display on their website the full name, domicile, telephone number, and email address of the editor. Even though the government does not actively enforce this provision, its presence in the statutes undermines citizens’ rights to privacy and anonymity and may encourage self-censorship.7
The Electronic Transactions and Cyber Security Act requires providers of cryptography services or products to register with MACRA and provide the regulator with “the technical characteristics of the encryption means as well as the source code of the software used.”8 This provision potentially affects services with end-to-end encryption, such as WhatsApp. Violations can carry up to seven years in prison, a fine of 5 million kwacha ($7,000), or both.9
- 1Malawi Communications Regulatory Authority (MACRA), “Communications Act 2016,” October 13, 2019, https://www.macra.org.mw/?wpdmpro=communications-act-2016; Malawi Communications Regulatory Authority (MACRA), “Announcement on SIM registration cut off date,” October 31, 2018, https://web.archive.org/web/20181031123539/http://www.macra.org.mw:80/a…; Malawi Communications Regulatory Authority (MACRA), “Be patriotic, register your SIM card,” November 27, 2019, https://web.archive.org/web/20191127154539/http://www.macra.org.mw/be-p….
- 2Calum Handforth and Matthew Wilson, “Digital Identity Country Report: Malawi,” GSM Association, 2019, https://www.gsma.com/mobilefordevelopment/wp-content/uploads/2019/02/Di….
- 3Tom Sangala, “Macra sets new Sim card registration deadlines,” The Times Group, June 4, 2018, https://times.mw/macra-sets-new-sim-card-registration-deadlines/.
- 4Russell Kondowe, “K5 million fine for using unregistered SIM card,” Malawi24, September 19, 2018, https://malawi24.com/2018/09/19/k5-million-fine-for-using-unregistered-….
- 5Malawi Communications Regulatory Authority (MACRA), “Communications Act 2016,” October 13, 2019, https://www.macra.org.mw/?wpdmpro=communications-act-2016.
- 6“Airtel Malawi deactivates a million unregistered SIMS,” Comms Update, October 5, 2018, https://www.commsupdate.com/articles/2018/10/05/airtel-malawi-deactivat….
- 7Malawi Government, “Act No. 33 of 2016,” November 4, 2016, https://malawilii.org/mw/legislation/act/2016/33.
- 8Malawi Government, “Act No. 33 of 2016,” November 4, 2016, https://malawilii.org/mw/legislation/act/2016/33.
- 9“World map of encryption laws and policies,” Global Partners Digital, [n.d.], https://www.gp-digital.org/world-map-of-encryption/.
|Does state surveillance of internet activities infringe on users’ right to privacy?||4.004 6.006|
Government surveillance of ICT activities is strongly suspected in Malawi, particularly in light of the regulatory authority’s January 2018 implementation of the Consolidated ICT Regulatory Management System (CIRMS),1 which is known locally as the “spy machine” (see C6). The right to privacy, including protection from interference with private telecommunications, is protected under the Constitution.2
Malawi requires all citizens age 16 and older to register for a national identity card under the National Registration Act of 2010. Registration entails the provision of personal information and biometrics, including fingerprints and a photograph of the individual’s face, which are stored in a centralized database. In the time since a mass registration exercise was conducted in 2017, the national ID card has become the only acceptable form of identity in certain transactions, including accessing state services,3 doing business in banks,4 healthcare services,5 taxpayer registration,6 voter registration,7 and SIM card registration (see C4). Commentators have raised concerns that the mass personal data collection has strengthened increased the possibility of state surveillance, especially in the absence of a data protection law.8
- 1Green Muheya, “Malawi roll out 'spy machine': Macra can now listen people's phone conversations,” Nyasa Times, January 24, 2018, https://www.nyasatimes.com/malawi-roll-spy-machine/.
- 2“Malawi’s Constitution of 1994 with Amendments through 2017,” Constitute Project, February 4, 2020, https://www.constituteproject.org/constitution/Malawi_2017.pdf?lang=en.
- 3National Registration Bureau, “Frequently Asked Questions?,” [n.d.], https://www.nrb.gov.mw/index.php/faqs/item/4-frequently-asked-questions; Mphatso Sam, “Registration for national identity cards resumes,” Malawi News Agency, June 25, 2019, https://www.manaonline.gov.mw/index.php/component/k2/item/13020-registr….
- 4Chris Burt, “Malawi bank integrates biometric National ID system for KYC checks,” Biometric Update, June 13, 2019, https://www.biometricupdate.com/201906/malawi-bank-integrates-biometric….
- 5National Registration Bureau, “National IDs, a solution to Malawi’s problems,” December 17, 2015, https://www.nrb.gov.mw/index.php/92-news/121-national-identity-cards-a-…; Ministry of Health, “The Malawi National eHealth Strategy 2011-2016,” April 2014, https://www.who.int/goe/policies/malawi_ehealth_strategy2011_2016.pdf?u…; National Registration Bureau, “Frequently Asked Questions?,” [n.d.], https://www.nrb.gov.mw/index.php/faqs/item/4-frequently-asked-questions
- 6Tom Gray Malata, “Know Your Customer (KYC),” Malawi Revenue Authority, March 6, 2019, https://www.mra.mw/press-releases/know-your-customer-kyc; Malawi Revenue Authority, “Information Update for Domestic Taxes (Individual),” [n.d.], https://www.mra.mw/assets/upload/downloads/KYC_Individual.pdf.
- 7“MEC to use National IDs for 2019 polls,” Malawi Broadcasting Corporation, [n.d.], https://www.mbc.mw/q-a/item/4388-mec-to-use-national-ids-for-2019-polls.
- 8Jimmy Kainja, “Are Malawians Sleepwalking into a Surveillance State?,” The Nation, August 12, 2019, https://mwnation.com/are-malawians-sleep-walking-into-a-surveillance-st….
|Are service providers and other technology companies required to aid the government in monitoring the communications of their users?||2.002 6.006|
Service providers do not necessarily monitor the communications of users, but they can be legally compelled by courts to hand over user information. Legal safeguards have failed to prevent such abuse in the past, particularly under past presidents. However, there are no examples of such cases during the coverage period.
In January 2019, the newly appointed minister of communication hinted that the government was considering the establishment of programs to trace people who abuse social media and was engaged with one of the country’s major telecommunications providers, TNM, to that end.1 No clear program has emerged from the consultations. In June 2019, the minister warned those who post “fake news” and obscene posts online that the Electronic Transactions and Cyber Security Law would “catch up with them.”2
In January 2018, MACRA implanted the CIRMS system,3 known locally as the “spy machine.” MACRA described the system as a tool for monitoring the performance of mobile phone companies and improving the quality of service. However, news reports said that the system would also allow MACRA—without judicial oversight—to obtain data from telephone operators, including the time, duration, and location of calls; short-message service (SMS) messages sent and received; the type of handset used; and other subscriber details.4 However, there have been no reported cases indicating that MACRA has ever implemented or attempted to implement any of these types of requests of information.
- 1Arkangel Tembo, “Malawi govt to trace individuals who abuse social media,” Nyasa Times, January 19, 2019, https://www.nyasatimes.com/malawi-govt-to-trace-and-truck-down-individu….
- 2“Malawi government warns social media abusers: To crackdown on fake news, obscene posts,” Nyasa Times, June 26, 2019, https://www.nyasatimes.com/malawi-government-warns-social-media-abusers….
- 3Green Muheya, “Malawi roll out 'spy machine': Macra can now listen people's phone conversations,” Nyasa Times, January 24, 2018, https://www.nyasatimes.com/malawi-roll-spy-machine/.
- 4Gregory Gondwe, “‘Spy Machine’ brings telecoms fears,” Biztech Africa, November 14, 2011, https://www.biztechafrica.com/article/spy%e2%80%90machine%e2%80%90bring….
|Are individuals subject to extralegal intimidation or physical violence by state authorities or any other actor in retribution for their online activities?||4.004 5.005|
Periodic assaults, extralegal detentions, and harassment of opposition activists, bloggers, or ordinary internet users have contributed to a climate of intimidation, particularly for media professionals.1
In September 2019, Golden Matonga, a blogger and NPL journalist, and Gladys Nthenda, a reporter with Kulinji.com, were physically attacked while covering a public demonstration against the electoral commission’s role in mismanagement of the May 2019 elections.2
In the past, there have been numerous reports of threats against political commentators and journalists who are critical of the government and the ruling party.3 These tend to come through phone calls and text messages and are not usually prosecuted.
Physical assaults of journalists—whose work in the print media is often cross-posted to online platforms, livestreamed, or tweeted—take place occasionally. In February 2019, journalist George Banda was assaulted by United Transformation Movement (UTM) supporters, who allegedly accused him of being a partisan and not a journalist.4 Attacks against journalists are sometimes perpetrated by state security forces, who act with impunity. In March 2019, a ZBS journalist, John Paul Kyuni, was reportedly assaulted by police officers for photographing a protest.5
Sexual harassment of women in Malawi by their peers, members of the public, and the police is a pervasive issue and has been inflamed by the internet in recent years.
- 1Lilian Saka Kiefer, “Panos condemns harassment of journalists in Malawi,” Panos Institute Southern Africa, June 25, 2018, http://www.panos.org.zm/index.php/2018/06/25/panos-condemns-harassment-….
- 2“MISA Malawi Condemns Assault of Journalists by Demonstrators”, Media Institute of Southern Africa (MISA) Malawi, September 18, 2019, https://malawi.misa.org/2019/09/18/misa-malawi-condemns-assault-of-jour….
- 3Kim Yi Dionne, “New survey raises alarms for freedom of speech in Malawi as protests loom,” Washington Post, December 8, 2017, https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/monkey-cage/wp/2017/12/08/new-surve…; Precious Kumbani, “Suspected DPP cadets threaten journalists,” The Nation, July 21, 2017, http://mwnation.com/suspected-dpp-cadets-threaten-journalists/.
- 4Yamikani Yapuwa, “MISA Malawi condemns the assault of a journalist by UTM supporters,” Malawai News Agency, February 12, 2019, https://www.manaonline.gov.mw/index.php/national/general/item/11693-mis….
- 5Elijah Phimbi, “CSOs, Misa Malawi condemn Police over Zodiak journalist attack and arrest,” Nyasa Times, March 10, 2019, https://www.nyasatimes.com/csos-misa-malawi-condemn-police-over-zodiak-….
|Are websites, governmental and private entities, service providers, or individual users subject to widespread hacking and other forms of cyberattack?||3.003 3.003|
There were no technical attacks against independent news websites, activists, or ordinary users reported during the coverage period. There has been no evidence of the state sponsoring or condoning cyberattacks on critics. There have also been no instances where critical national infrastructure or government agencies have been attacked in a manner that affected large numbers of people.
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Global Freedom Score66 100 partly free
Internet Freedom Score57 100 partly free
Freedom in the World StatusPartly Free