Malawi ranked ‘partly free’ on Freedom House index: ‘Mutharika showing autocratic tendencies’

Malawi has been ranked “partly free” in the Freedom on the Net report by the activist group Freedom House released on Monday which also said President Peter Mutharika is showing “autocratic tendencies.”

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The Freedom House report, one of the most authoritative reports in the field, investigated 65 geographically dispersed and politically diverse countries, and ranked them according to obstacles to access, limits on content and violations of user rights. These results translated into quantitative (0-70) and qualitative (free, partially free, not free) ratings.

The watchdog group  said Internet freedom in Malawi “suffered from declining quality of access and problematic arrests of opposition members for messages exchanged on WhatsApp.”

Malawi police rounded up three officials of the main opposition Malawi Congress Party, or MCP, for allegedly plotting a coup through a WhatsApp conversation.

The police charged the suspects with treason. They are currently on bail awaiting formal charges.

The report on Malawi says  President Mutharika has began showing “autocratic tendencies similar to his elder brother and former President Bingu wa Mutharika, whose repressive tenure ended when he died in 2012.”

It said the the governing Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) has specifically targeted online activities, indicating that the authorities perceive the potential of digital media to empower journalists and citizens as a threat.

But government spokesman Malison Ndau said branding President Mutharika autocratic is “out of order.”

Ndau said he had not read the report but could immediately dismiss assertions that Mutharika is showing dictatorial traits, saying that is “an overzealous assessment”.

The report noted that Parliament passed the controversial Electronic Transactions Bill (E-Bill) in July 2016, which will allow for restrictions on online communications to “protect public order and national security,” and “facilitate technical restriction to conditional access to online communication,” an unclear provision that could be interpreted as enabling blocks on social media or communications platforms.

Further, “offensive communication” via ICTs that disturbs the privacy rights of any person is penalized with a fine and 12-month prison sentence, and could be used by public officials to punish their online critics.

Meanwhile, the report said access remained one of primary obstacles to internet freedom in Malawi, as unprecedented inflation and currency depreciation fueled economic instability, negatively impacting the ICT sector and citizens’ ability to afford basic goods, including mobile services.

However, the report noted that no websites were blocked in the country, and users have increasingly turned to online platforms to express critical viewpoints.

Nonetheless, it noted that anecdotal  reports of critical online posts “disappearing” suggests that informal content removals demanded by government officials is common.

Furthermore, online advertising is low due to a limited understanding of the internet among businesses, which are hesitant to advertise with independent media outlets, the report said.

The report noted that elsewhere a growing number of regimes are restricting or censoring messaging platforms such as WhatsApp in addition to popular social networks.

“Popular social media sites like Facebook and Twitter have been subject to growing censorship for several years, but governments are now increasingly going after messaging apps like WhatsApp and Telegram,” said Sanja Kelly, director of the study.

“Messaging apps are able to spread information quickly and securely — and some governments find this threatening.”

The report said 34 of the 65 countries assessed in the report saw internet freedom deteriorate since June 2015.

Some of the notable declines were in Uganda, Bangladesh, Cambodia, Ecuador, and Libya, while online freedom improved in Sri Lanka and Zambia and in the United States, due to the passage of a law limiting collection of telecommunications metadata.

Freedom House is a US-based non-governmental organisation that conducts research and advocacy on democracy, political freedom and human rights. Freedom House was founded in October 1941 and it describes itself as a “clear voice for democracy and freedom around the world”.

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