Malawi

Partly Free
59
100
A Obstacles to Access 11 25
B Limits on Content 25 35
C Violations of User Rights 23 40
Last Year's Score & Status
60 100 Partly Free
Scores are based on a scale of 0 (least free) to 100 (most free)

header1 Overview

Internet freedom in Malawi declined during the coverage period, as people were arrested for their online activities for the first time in recent years. Online news outlets have been subject to government manipulation via unofficial directives in recent years, 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. For instance, citizens were free to demonstrate and protest against the outcome of 2019 presidential elections, which was later nullified by the country’s constitutional court, which ordered a fresh election that was won by an opposition coalition in June 2020. This was the only second time in Africa, after Kenya, that a court has nullified elections, and it is the only case in Africa that a court-ordered fresh election has ended in transfer of power. 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.

header2 Key Developments, June 1, 2020 - May 31, 2021

  • Government data released in August 2020 indicate marginal gains in internet access and confirm the severity of the urban-rural digital divide in the country (see A1 and A2).
  • Malawians mobilized over high internet prices in the #DataMustFall campaign, as the communications regulator and telecommunications providers discussed internet affordability (see A2 and B8).
  • The government dissolved the board of the telecommunications regulator in July 2020, alongside the boards of over 50 other state-controlled corporations, citing malpractice throughout the system (see A5).
  • Three people were arrested for their online activities during the coverage period, the first such arrests in recent years (see C3).

A Obstacles to Access

A1 1.00-6.00 pts0-6 pts
Do infrastructural limitations restrict access to the internet or the speed and quality of internet connections? 1.001 6.006

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. According to the latest data from the Malawi Government’s National Statistics Office (NSO), internet penetration stood at 14.6 percent in 2019. 2 DataReportal, in contrast, reports an internet penetration rate of 17.8 as of January 2021, 3 while the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) reports a rate of 13.8 as of 2017.4

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, down from 44 percent in 2018.5 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 2019.6 The NSO data indicate that that 37 percent of households owned a mobile phone and 2.8 percent of individuals owned a computer as of 2019.7

The few users who have internet access experience slow internet speeds. According to the Inclusive Internet Index 2021 report, the average fixed broadband upload speed in Malawi is 8.7 megabits per second (Mbps) and the average fixed broadband download speed is 8.5 Mbps, while mobile speeds average 11.6 Mbps for upload and 21.2 Mbps for download.8 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 due to 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 negatively impacting the information and communication technologies (ICT) sector.

Unreliable electricity and the high cost of fuel-generator power strain ICT use. According to the World Bank, just 12.7 percent of the country has access to electricity, giving Malawi one of the lowest electrification rates in the world.9 Frequent electricity blackouts remain one of the country’s biggest problems, with slight improvements 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.10 The sporadic and infrequent power supply adversely affects the delivery of internet and mobile services in the country.11 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.12 In April 2018, the Malawi National Optic Fibre Backbone Project was completed by the Chinese company Huawei, with the promise of faster internet service;13 as of March 2021, the project does not appear to have produced the 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.

A2 1.00-3.00 pts0-3 pts
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.

Access to the internet is extremely expensive for average Malawians. As of May 2021, a monthly data bundle for 10 gigabytes (GB) cost 15,500 kwacha ($20) with both Airtel Malawi1 and Telekom Networks Malawi (TNM).2 Subscribers are also charged a 17.5 percent value-added tax (VAT) on mobile phones and services, a 16.5 percent VAT on internet services,3 and an additional 10.0 percent excise duty on mobile phone text messages and internet data transfers.4 Low growth rates of internet and mobile phone access are largely the result of high service costs for consumers. The country’s minimum monthly wage is 50,000 kwacha ($64) as of January 2021, and most Malawians are employed outside of the formal sector.5

In April 2021, the information ministry directed the Malawi Communications Regulatory Authority (MACRA) to engage mobile service providers on lowering the cost of data, specifically the cost of 1GB data bundles. 6 In November 2020, MACRA indicated it would introduce regulations removing expiry dates for internet bundles.7 No such regulation was issued as of August 2021, though Airtel Malawi voluntarily released a no-expiry bundle in April 2021.8

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, and essential communications platforms. In July 2020, Malawians mobilized online to ask the government to address concerns about the high cost of internet data (see B8).9 A coalition of civil society organizations also appealed to the government to make the internet more affordable.10 Despite these calls, 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., According to the August 2020 NSO report, 40.7 percent of people in urban areas had access to the internet, as opposed to 9.3 percent of those in rural areas.11 The Universal Service Fund, which aims at increasing infrastructure in rural and hard-to-reach areas of the country, remains inoperable, though MACRA reports it is continuing to work on the fund as of August 2020. 12 The electricity grid is concentrated in urban centers, giving 62 percent of urban households’ access to electricity, compared to a mere 5 percent of rural households.13 A low literacy rate of 62 percent14 also remains a barrier to accessing ICTs.

There is a significant digital divide along gender lines.15 15.4 percent of men use the internet in Malawi, as compared to 12.4 percent of women, according to the NSO.16

A3 1.00-6.00 pts0-6 pts
Does the government exercise technical or legal control over internet infrastructure for the purposes of restricting connectivity? 5.005 6.006

There were no connectivity restrictions imposed during the coverage period, though outages during political events such as elections have been reported in the past. The government of Malawi does not have centralized control over the international gateway.1

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, raising concerns that connectivity was intentionally disrupted. 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).2 The report noted that connectivity via privately owned internet providers generally remained available.3 However, the network outage was not noticed locally, perhaps because outages in the sporadic internet service supply are common. 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.4

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; it also alleged that the government applied direct pressure on internet service providers (ISPs) to shut down their networks.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 Program (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.

A4 1.00-6.00 pts0-6 pts
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. Access Communications, a fixed-line broadband provider that also offers mobile services, presents no serious competition to the two main operators.1 In August 2020, President Chakwera indicated support for the licensing of a third mobile phone operator to promote competition,2 though no effort to enact the licensing was publicly reported as of August 2021.

Malawi’s ICT market is reasonably competitive with 50 licensed ISPs, the majority of which are privately owned, with the exception of SDNP.3 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.4 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 2017.5

A5 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
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 and is generally considered corrupt. MACRA’s board is appointed by the president and the regulator has strong links to the Ministry of Information.

MACRA remains the country’s sole telecommunications regulator, though there are reports that the government may seek to establish a regulatory authority focused on the ICT sector.1 MACRA was 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.2 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.

In July 2020, President Chakwera dissolved the board of MACRA, along with the boards of over 50 other state-controlled corporations, citing “anomalies and malpractices within them.”3 Numerous former MACRA board members and officials face corruption charges.4 In May 2021, a government watchdog found widespread misconduct in MACRA’s recruitment practices.5

Moreover, article 5(1) of the Communications Act6 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.7

B Limits on Content

B1 1.00-6.00 pts0-6 pts
Does the state block or filter, or compel service providers to block or filter, internet content, particularly material that is protected by international human rights standards? 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.

  • 1. During 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….
B2 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Do state or nonstate actors employ legal, administrative, or other means to force publishers, content hosts, or digital platforms to delete content, particularly material that is protected by international human rights standards? 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 was common in past years. According to Phiri, these removals are ordered by top government and ruling party officials. During the previous coverage period, such officials, including a government minister, ordered NPL to remove content on at least three occasions.1

  • 1. Author interview with Moses Michael Phiri, news editor at Nation Publications Limited, on February 26, 2020.
B3 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
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 indicate that it could also restrict content through similar partnership agreements (see C6).

Instances of content removal via unofficial directive are public and cannot be appealed.

B4 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
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. Recent arrests of individuals for posts on social media—including a person convicted during the coverage period (see C3)—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 powerful individuals, as well as ethnic, racial, or religious minorities.

B5 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
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 not published online or in print because their editors received directives from officials to refrain from publishing about certain topics (see B2). Newspaper journalists have indicated that they received queries from politicians in both opposition and ruling parties demanding to have positive news articles and reports concerning them prioritized.1 Politicians have also verbally threated and abused journalists for their journalistic work (see C7).2

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. Progovernment and ruling party groups manipulated images of newspaper front pages to suit their interests, then circulated them online, misleading the public.3 (News organizations in Malawi routinely post pictures of the front and back pages of newspapers on social media as a way of advertising.)

The 1967 Protected Flag, Emblems and Names Act and the 1947 Printed Publications Act both restrict the media from reporting on the president.4

B6 1.00-3.00 pts0-3 pts
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 SDNP administers the .mw domain on behalf of the Malawian government.1 As of November 2019, 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, MasterCard, 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).

B7 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Does the online information landscape lack diversity and reliability? 2.002 4.004

Even though the online landscape in Malawi is generally open and relatively 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 of the population.1

Malawi’s information space has suffered some problems with reliability. Misinformation about the Covid-19 pandemic and the 2020 elections spread online during the coverage period.2

Malawi’s blogosphere has stagnated, matched by a shift to social media platforms like Twitter, Facebook, and WhatsApp groups, where Malawians engage in political discussions and express themselves freely. 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.3 Some cultural topics remain taboo (see B4).

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.

B8 1.00-6.00 pts0-6 pts
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, Malawians mobilized on social media to protest high internet data prices using the #DataMustFall hashtag starting in July 2020. Throughout the coverage period, MACRA and telecommunications providers engaged in efforts to lower prices (see A2).1

Messaging apps such as WhatsApp and social media platforms like Twitter 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 relatively 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

C Violations of User Rights

C1 1.00-6.00 pts0-6 pts
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

C2 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Are there laws that assign criminal penalties or civil liability for online activities, particularly those that are protected under international human rights standards? 1.001 4.004

Several provisions of Malawi’s legal framework assign criminal penalties to online speech.

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. Section 60 of the Penal Code penalises “publication of false news likely to cause fear and alarm to the public,” which has been used to prosecute people for online activities (see C3). The Media Institute for Southern Africa (MISA) Malawi Chapter has urged the government to remove this provision from the statutes, as it infringes freedom of expression.1

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; the law came into force in June 2017.2 Article 24 allows for restrictions on online public communications deemed necessary to “protect public order and national security.”3 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.4 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.5 Article 52 of the law also places vague restrictions on encryption (see C4).

C3 1.00-6.00 pts0-6 pts
Are individuals penalized for online activities, particularly those that are protected under international human rights standards? 3.003 6.006

Score Change: The score declined from 4 to 3 because three people were arrested for the online activities during the coverage period; one was convicted in May 2021, the first such conviction in recent years.

There is a pattern of internet users being penalized for online activities in Malawi.

In May 2021, Irene Chisulo Majiga was arrested for publishing a voice note on WhatsApp alleging that that a person detained on rape charges was released under questionable circumstances. Majiga was charged under Section 60 of the penal code and pled guilty; she was sentenced to a fine of 50,000 kwacha ($64).1

In April 2021, Ignatius Kamwanje was arrested for a Facebook post in which he alleged that money was being stolen from customers at the National Bank of Malawi, one of the largest banks in the country. Bank employees filed a complaint with police, contesting the allegation.2 In June, after the coverage period, Kamwanje was sentenced to either 18 months imprisonment or a fine of 200,000 kwacha ($257) after pleading guilty to a spamming charge under the Electronic Transactions and Cyber Security Act; he chose to pay the fine.3

Police arrested Raymond Siyaya, a journalist from Chanco Community Radio, on allegations of reporting “fake news” on his Facebook page in February 2021. Siyaya reportedly alleged that senior security officials had mismanaged COVID-19 relief funds.4 The journalist was charged under section 60 of the penal code. He has since been released and verbally told that the charges have been dropped.5

During the previous 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.6 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 May 2021, the case had not proceeded.

C4 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
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 ($6,400) 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 ($6,400), or both.9

C5 1.00-6.00 pts0-6 pts
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

C6 1.00-6.00 pts0-6 pts
Does monitoring and collection of user data by service providers and other technology companies infringe on users’ right to privacy? 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 then-minister of information 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.

C7 1.00-5.00 pts0-5 pts
Are individuals subject to extralegal intimidation or physical violence by state authorities or any other actor in relation to 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 Kayuni, 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.

C8 1.00-3.00 pts0-3 pts
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 or activists 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.

On Malawi

See all data, scores & information on this country or territory.

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  • Global Freedom Score

    66 100 partly free
  • Internet Freedom Score

    59 100 partly free
  • Freedom in the World Status

    Partly Free
  • Networks Restricted

    No
  • Websites Blocked

    No
  • Pro-government Commentators

    No
  • Users Arrested

    Yes