Malawi

Partly Free
39/100
Key Developments: 

June 1, 2017 - May 31, 2018

  • A new National Optic Fibre Backbone Project was completed by Chinese company Huawei in April 2018, promising to deliver faster internet services (see Restrictions on Connectivity).

  • There were no reports of citizens arrested, prosecuted, or attacked for their online activities during this report’s coverage period, though a climate of intimidation persists for media professionals in general (see Violations of User Rights).

Introduction: 

Internet freedom in Malawi improved during the reporting period as incidents of censorship decreased as well as arrests and attacks for online activities.

No websites were blocked in the country during the coverage period, and users have increasingly turned to online platforms to express critical viewpoints. There were no blatant arrests or prosecutions for online activities during this report’s coverage period compared to past years.

Despite the lack of internet freedom violations, Malawi’s President Arthur Peter Mutharika repeatedly warned that punitive action would be taken against online speech viewed as denigrating to others. Critics worry that the controversial Electronic Transactions and Cybersecurity Act passed in mid-2016 may be used to silence dissent, especially as the country gears up for elections in 2019. The law penalizes “offensive communication” via ICTs with penalties of fines or a maximum 12-month prison sentence, and places vague restrictions on encryption.

Obstacles to Access: 

ICTs remained prohibitively expensive for the majority of Malawians, resulting in low access rates across the country. A new National Optic Fibre Backbone Project was completed by Chinese company Huawei in April 2018, promising to deliver faster internet services.

Availability and Ease of Access

Landlocked Malawi—with a population of over 18 million people—has one of the lowest and slowest growing rates of internet access in the world, in stark 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 under 10 percent in 2016. Fixed-broadband subscriptions are extremely rare. Mobile phone penetration is also low at 42 percent in 2017, growing marginally from 40 percent in 2016.1

Poor growth rates of internet and mobile phone access are largely a result of the 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,2 and an additional 10 percent excise duty on mobile phone text messages and internet data transfers introduced in May 2015.3 Consequently, access to the internet is extremely expensive for average Malawians. As of March 2018, a monthly data bundle for 10GB cost US$22 with both Airtel4 and TNM.5

The high costs hit the country’s poor the hardest, shutting them out of an increasingly digital world of important services like mobile banking and money services that could help lift them out of poverty, as well as access to essential communications platforms. In September 2017, the Consumers Association of Malawi (CAMA) took the telecommunications regulator, MACRA, to task for its failure to address concerns on affordability and network challenges.6

For the few users who have access, connection speeds are frustratingly slow and have decreased to an average of 1.3 Mbps in 2017 from 1.7 Mbps a year prior, compared to a global average of 7.0 Mbps, according to Akamai’s “State of the Internet” report.7Slowing speeds have coincided with rising costs 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 having a negative impact on the ICT sector.

A low literacy rate of 64 percent also remains a barrier to accessing ICTs, and there is a significant digital divide along gender lines.8

Unreliable electricity and the high cost of generator power strain ICT use. Less than 10 percent of the country has access to electricity, giving Malawi one of the lowest electrification rates in the world, according to the World Bank.9 The electricity grid is concentrated in urban centers, but only 25 percent of urban households have access, compared to a mere 1 percent of rural households. In the past year, electricity blackouts frequently lasted up to 72 hours across the country, adversely affecting the delivery of internet and mobile services.10 Half of Malawi’s private sector enterprises rely on backup generators. The high cost of infrastructure development in rural areas makes companies unwilling to invest in the country’s remote regions.

Restrictions on Connectivity

There were no restrictions on connectivity imposed during the report’s coverage period. The government of Malawi does not have centralized control over the international gateway, which the ITU characterizes as competitive.11 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 internet service providers (ISPs), but does not have the capacity to block content or restrict connectivity.12

Due to Malawi’s landlocked location, it is connected to the international fiber network in Mozambique, Zambia, South Africa, and Tanzania through the SEACOM and EASSy networks. The fiber optic network SimbaNET was launched in May 2016, establishing a connection between the capital, Lilongwe, and Tanzania.13 In April 2018, the Malawi National Optic Fibre Backbone Project was completed by Chinese company Huawei, promising to deliver faster internet services.14

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 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.

ICT Market

Malawi’s ICT market is reasonably competitive with 50 licensed ISPs, the majority of which are privately owned with the exception of the Malawi Sustainable Development Network Programme (SDNP).15 One ISP, MTL, also serves as the country’s telecommunication backbone, leasing its infrastructure to most ISPs and mobile phone service providers in the country.16 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 2017.17

Mobile phone services are offered by three providers – Airtel Malawi, Telecom Networks Malawi (TNM), and Access Communications.18

Regulatory Bodies

The Malawi Communications Regulatory Authority (MACRA) remains the country’s sole communications regulator, established under the 2008 Communication Act to ensure reliable and affordable ICT service provision throughout Malawi. Its mandate is to regulate the entire communications sector and issue operating licenses for mobile and fixed-line phone service providers, ISPs, and cybercafés.

Political connections are often necessary to obtain such licenses. Moreover, the institutional structure of MACRA is subject to political interference, with its board comprised of a chairman 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 Information Ministry secretary.19 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.

Limits on Content: 

In the past year, online content remained uncensored, although online news was subject to government manipulation in the form of directives.

Blocking and Filtering

The current government of Malawi does not block or filter internet content aside from child pornography. Social media platforms are freely available in Malawi. Former presidential regimes have censored internet content in the past.20

Observers and critics worry that the new Electronic Transactions and Cybersecurity Act passed in July 2016 may be used to block content in the future, among other internet freedom restrictions. In particular, Article 28 allows for restrictions on online communications to “protect public order and national security,” a broad provision open for abuse.21 The same article would also “facilitate technical restriction to conditional access to online communication,” an unclear clause that could be interpreted to enable network shutdowns or blocks on social media platforms (see Legal Environment for more details).

Content Removal

Content removal tactics in Malawi are largely informal according to analysts who have received anonymous reports about how the authorities regularly direct editors of online news websites to take down critical content. However, the practice is underreported and the extent of content affected is unknown. No incidents of content removal were reported during the coverage period.

Media, Diversity, and Content Manipulation

Online news is subject to government manipulation in the form of directives. According to anonymous interviews, several journalists have complained 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.

Malawi’s online media landscape does not reflect a wide diversity of viewpoints, primarily due to the low level of internet use. Economic conditions make it difficult for journalists and media groups to launch online outlets. The high cost of using the .mw domain – currently administered by the Malawi SNDP on behalf of the Malawian government – is also an obstacle to publishing locally-produced content. According to an official at the SDNP, the cost of using the .mw domain is US$100 per month for two months after registration and US$50 per month thereafter. Furthermore, online advertising is low due to a limited understanding of the internet among businesses, which are hesitant to advertise with independent media outlets. Nonetheless, Malawi’s blogosphere has continued to grow, with Malawian journalists frequently winning the Media Institute of Southern Africa’s annual blogging award.

Internet users and commentators practice a degree of self-censorship but are generally more open to discussing topics of controversial nature. In contrast, online journalists usually exhibit caution when handling news associated with ethnic, racial, or religious minorities.

Digital Activism

The most influential ICT tool in Malawi remains the mobile phone. Messaging platforms such as WhatsApp are regularly used to organize campaigns and demonstrations, garner political support, and conduct opinion polls. Digital activism for political or social causes occurs occasionally.

In the past year, the free mobile app U-Report Malawi was launched as a tool for community participation to address youth issues. Sponsored by UNICEF and the government, the tool is free on both Airtel and TNM networks and seeks to connect the youth with policymakers on issues important to them.22

Violations of User Rights: 

There were no reports of citizens arrested, prosecuted, or attacked for their online activities during this report’s coverage period, though a climate of intimidation persists for media professionals in general.

Legal Environment

Malawi has strong constitutional guarantees for freedom of the press and expression; however, there are several laws that restrict these freedoms in practice. The 1967 Protected Flag, Emblems and Names Act and the 1947 Printed Publications Act both restrict the media from reporting on the president, among other limitations.23 Libel is punishable with up to two years imprisonment if prosecuted as a criminal charge, although most libel cases are processed as civil offences or settled out of court. Malawi’s judiciary is generally regarded as independent.

In an effort to provide a regulatory framework for ICTs and address cybercrime, parliament passed the controversial Electronic Transactions and Cybersecurity Act in July 2016, which came into force on June 1, 2017.24 Critics have highlighted its potential to limit internet freedom since it was first drafted in October 2013 and worry that the problematic provisions of the law will be used to silence dissent ahead of elections in 2019. Article 24 allows for restrictions on online communications to “protect public order and national security,” a broad provision open for abuse.25 The same article would also “facilitate technical restriction to conditional access to online communication,” an unclear clause that could be interpreted to enable network shutdowns or blocks on social media platforms.26 Article 87 penalizes “offensive communication” via ICTs that disturbs the privacy rights of any person with fines or a maximum 12-month prison sentence – a provision that public officials could exploit to punish critical speech by online journalists or internet users.27 Article 52 of new law also places vague restrictions on encryption (see Surveillance, Privacy, and Anonymity).

Prosecutions and Detentions for Online Activities

There were no reports of citizens arrested or prosecuted for their online activities during this report’s coverage period.

After the coverage period in August 2018, one social media activist was arrested for allegedly insulting the president on Facebook.28 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.29 The activist, Manes Winnie Hale, was granted bail but faces up to two years in prison if convicted.30

Surveillance, Privacy, and Anonymity

Government surveillance of ICT activities is strongly suspected in Malawi, particularly in light of the regulatory authority’s January 2018 implementation of technology called the Consolidated ICT Regulatory Management System (CIRMS),31 which is known locally as the “spy machine.” The regulatory body MACRA described the system as a tool for monitoring the performance of mobile phone companies and improving quality of service. However, news reports said that the machine would also allow MACRA to obtain data from telephone operators, including the time, duration, and location of calls; SMS messages sent and received; the type of handset used; and other subscriber details, without judicial oversight.32

The new Electronic Transactions and Cybersecurity Act enacted in January 2017 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.”33 Though it is uncertain whether or how the new requirements will affect popular technologies with end-to-end encryption, such as WhatsApp, penalties for violating the law include up to seven years in prison, a fine of MWK 5,000,000, or both.34

Service providers are required by law to hand over user information when presented with a court-issued warrant, though such legal safeguards have failed to prevent abuse in the past, particularly under the past presidents.

Restrictions on anonymous communication include SIM card registration requirements that were announced in June 2014 and reinforced in the 2016 Communications Act; however, they had not been enforced as of May 2018.35 In June, MACRA announced a final deadline of September 30 all subscribers to register their SIM cards or face disconnection.36 As the deadline approached, the Parliamentary Legal Affairs Committee stated that unregistered SIM cards in use after the September 30th deadline would be fined K5 million (nearly USD $7,000).37

Intimidation and Violence

There were no reports of physical assaults, extralegal detentions, or harassment of opposition activists, bloggers, or ordinary internet users in the past year, though a climate of intimidation persists for media professionals in general.38 Broadcast and print media journalists are frequently harassed and sometimes attacked while doing their jobs.39

Sexual harassment of women in Malawi by their peers, the public, and police is a pervasive issue and has been inflamed by the internet in recent years. In January 2018, a human rights lawyer spoke openly about how social media had “unleashed a new wave of violence against women” in Malawi.40

Technical Attacks

There were no technical attacks against independent news websites, activists, or ordinary users reported during the period under review. There has been no evidence of state sponsoring or condoning cyber-attacks on critics. Neither has there been instances where critical national infrastructure or government agencies have been attacked to affect millions of people.

Notes: 

1 ITU, “Key 2005-2017 ICT data,” http://bit.ly/1cblxxY.

2 Frontier Economics, Taxation and the Growth of Mobile Services in Sub-Saharan Africa, GSMA, 2008, http://bit.ly/1Pk9rVc; Gregory Gondwe, “Internet VAT bites consumers,” Biztech Africa, July 24, 2013, http://bit.ly/1Zim7Ai

3 Wanga 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-goodall-says-local-resources-to-finance-201516-budget/

5 TNM Monthly data bundle for 10GB, http://www.tnm.co.mw/smart-data

6 Grace Phiri, “Macra irks consumers over tariffs, network glitches,” The Nation, September 12, 2017, http://mwnation.com/macra-irks-consumers-tariffs-network-glitches/

7 Akamai, “State of the Internet, Q1 2017 Report,” https://goo.gl/TQH7L7

8 National Statistical Office, Survey On Access & Usage of ICT Services in Malawi-2014 Report, NSO, 2015, http://www.macra.org.mw/wp-content/uploads/2014/09/Survey_on-_Access_and_Usage_of_ICT_Services_2014_Report.pdf

9 Latest available data is from 2012. World Bank, “Access to electricity (% of population),” accessed October 9, 2018, http://bit.ly/1zN9Eaf

10 Tione Andsen, “Blackout is a setback to internet connectivity,” Manaonline, November 3, 2017, http://www.manaonline.gov.mw/index.php/business/item/6556-blackout-is-a-setback-to-internet-connectivity

11 ITU, “Malawi Profile (Latest data available: 2013),” ICT EYE, accessed May 1, 2016, http://bit.ly/1Pk9X5I

12 Author interview with IT engineer for a local mobile phone company on March 25, 2015.

13 Linda Tembo, “Optic fiber cable to improve ICT in Malawi,” Zodiak Online, May 9, 2016, http://zodiakmalawi.com/malawi-national-news/optic-fiber-cable-to-improve-ict-in-malawi

14 Nakirfai 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-backbone-project/; Chikondi Chimala and Tione Andsen, “Malawi: Huawei Hails Government On National Fibre Backbone Project,” allAfrica, April 30, 2018, “https://allafrica.com/stories/201805010206.html

15 Henry Lancaster, Malawi - Telecoms, Mobile and Broadband - Market Insights and Statistics, Executive Summary, BuddeComm, accessed October 9, 2018, http://bit.ly/1OoOUOx

16 “Fibre optic backbone yielding fruits – MTL,” Mkali Journalist (blog), June 11, 2013, http://bit.ly/1jeMOpm.

17 Taonga Sabola, “MTL abandons mobile phones,” The Times Group, April 20, 2017, https://www.times.mw/mtl-abandons-mobile-phones/

18 Henry Lancaster, Malawi - Telecoms, Mobile and Broadband - Market Insights and Statistics, Executive Summary, accessed October 9, 2018, http://bit.ly/1OoOUOx

19 International Research & Exchanges Board (IREX), “Malawi,” Media Sustainability Index 2012https://www.irex.org/sites/default/files/pdf/media-sustainability-index-africa-2012-malawi.pdf

20 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, http://bit.ly/1L9Bn93

21 Media Institute of Southern Africa (MISA), “Southern Africa: Malawi Parliament Rejects Bill to Gag Online Media,” press release, November 29, 2015, http://malawi.misa.org/2015/11/29/malawi-parliament-rejects-bill-to-gag-online-media/

22 Fostina Mkandawire, “Minister advises youth to use social media positively,” MBC, March 29, 2018, https://www.mbc.mw/index.php/news/sports/item/6033-minister-advises-youth-to-use-social-media-positively

23 Freedom House, “Malawi,” Freedom of the Press 2017https://freedomhouse.org/report/freedom-press/2017/malawi

24 Moses 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

25 Media Institute of Southern Africa (MISA), “Southern Africa: Malawi Parliament Rejects Bill to Gag Online Media,” press release, November 29, 2015, https://allafrica.com/stories/201511303064.html

26 Malawi Government Act, No. 33 of 2016, November 4, 2016, http://www.macra.org.mw/wp-content/uploads/2014/07/E-Transactions-Act-2016.pdf

27 Malawi Government Act, No. 33 of 2016, November 4, 2016. , http://www.macra.org.mw/wp-content/uploads/2014/07/E-Transactions-Act-2016.pdf.

28 “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-activist-abiti-manice-accused-of-insulting-malawi-president/

29 Yvonnie Sundu, “US- Malawi ties on edge,” The Nation, August 22, 2018, https://mwnation.com/us-malawi-ties-on-edge/

30 Yvonnie Sundu, “UTM celebrates Hale’s bail,” The Nation, August 23, 2018, https://mwnation.com/utm-celebrates-hales-bail/

31 Green 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/

32 Gregory Gondwe, “Spy Machine’ brings telecoms fears,” Biztech Africa, November 14, 2011, http://bit.ly/1Mhgs3V.

33 Malawi Government Act, No. 33 of 2016, November 4, 2016, http://www.macra.org.mw/wp-content/uploads/2014/07/E-Transactions-Act-2016.pdf

35 WangaGwede, “Malawi to start mandatory SIM card registration,” Nyasa Times, January 11, 2014, http://bit.ly/1NrjecG

36 Catherine Mwanvani, “MACRA sets September 30 as new deadline for sim registration, June 27, 2018, http://www.manaonline.gov.mw/index.php/business/item/9592-macra-sets-september-30-as-new-deadline-for-sim-registration

37 Russell 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-sim-card/

38 “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-of-journalists-in-malawi/

39 Limbani Chuma Ngwata, “MISA Malawi concerned with attack of MBC reporters by MCP supporters,” MBC, January 31, 2018, https://www.mbc.mw/index.php/news/sports/item/5760-misa-malawi-concerned-with-attack-of-mbc-reporters-by-mcp-supporters; “Misa Malawi condemns assault of Times photojournalist by DPP cadets at Parliament,” Nyasa Times, May 4, 2018, https://www.nyasatimes.com/misa-malawi-condemns-assault-of-times-photojournalist-by-dpp-cadets-at-parliament/

40 Rossalyn Warren, ”Cycle of shame: Harassed in the street, then again on social media,” CNN, January 8, 2018, https://edition.cnn.com/2018/01/08/africa/malawi-cycle-of-shame-asequals/index.html