CHRR asks Malawi Parliament to review Electronic Transaction and Cyber Security Act: Threat to ATI

Centre for Human Rights and Rehabilitation (CHRR) has asked members of Parliament (MPs) to seriously consider reviewing the Electronic Transaction and Cyber Security Act, stressing that some provisions in the Act can potentially frustrate efforts to promote digital rights and freedom of expression.

Kaiyatsa: These provisions will hurt this nation one day–Photo by Watipaso Mzungu, Nyasa Times
Participants to the Digital Rights Advocacy Strategy Development Workshop pose for a photo–Photo by Watipaso Mzungu, Nyasa Times

CHRR acting executive director Michael Kaiyatsa cited Section 24 (e) (f) of 2016, which empowers the government to restrict online communications to protect order and national security.

The law also penalizes offensive communication via information communication technologies (ICTs) with penalties of fines or a maximum 12-month prison sentence.

But Kaiyatsa, speaking when he opened a two-day Digital Rights Advocacy Strategy Development Workshop at Mponela in Dowa, argued that the provision is a threat to the citizens’ right to the internet as well as a thorn in the national efforts to promote active citizenship.

He said maintaining the provisions would be counterproductive and a threat to enjoyment of the United Nations (UN)-declared right to the internet.

UN recognized access to the internet as a human right in 2016.

“We are worried because that section is providing for the restriction to the internet for the citizens. That Section is actually saying the government can restrict the access to the internet to protect public order or national security. It’s a good provision. However, it could be abused by the government that is bent on abusing people’s rights. So, we are saying there is a need to clearly define what public order is because as it is, it is open to abuse. It can be interpreted in all sorts of manner,” he said.

Kaiyatsa emphasized that there was a need for the framers of the law to be specific on what is meant by protecting public order.

He added that there is another provision in the same Act, which says the government can restrict access to the internet, especially in the case of offensive communication.

Kaiyatsa said the Act does not clearly define what offensive communication is.

“Thus, we feel it is prone to abuse. We might wake up one day with maybe a government or an administration that is not rights sensitive. And this could lead to people being victimized for using the internet. We have seen so many examples in the recent years where people have been arrested for posting messages that are deemed offensive. For example, last year in 2019, somebody was arrested [in Karonga] after he posted a comment likening the former First Lady [Gertrude Mutharika] to a cartoon character wrangle,” he said.

He therefore asked MPs to critically look at these provisions and “perhaps reform them in order to ensure that they are not used in the future to restrict people’s rights”.

“So, we are hoping, as CSOs, that parliament will sit down one day to critically look at these provisions with the aim of clarifying the language so that it cannot abused because the way it is currently, it is subject to all sorts of interpretations, which would limit people’s access to the internet,” said Kaiyatsa.

Meanwhile, Kaiyatsa disclosed that the Digital Rights Advocacy Strategy Development Workshop was organized to build the capacity of the civil society organizations on digital rights.

He said although access to the internet was declared a human right in 2016, the concept is relatively new in Malawi.

“That’s why we felt that it’s important that we sensitize our civil society colleagues that access to ICT services is now recognized as a human right and should be treated as such. So, this workshop basically is aimed at sensitizing the participants on digital rights, but also develop strategies on how, as CSOs, we can lobby and promote access to the internet,” he said.

“Internet is very important because access to information is an enabler of human rights, especially online. You will appreciate that in this era, more and more people are using the internet and the internet is becoming an important tool for doing business, learning and even for personal relationships.

“You talk of WhatsApp, Facebook; people are interacting more on the internet. And that’s why it is important that access to the internet is protected by law and also in practice,” narrated Kaiyatsa.

One of the participants, Bridget Mwanoka of Luntha Television, said the workshop had come at the right time when the thirst for access to information among Malawians is growing at an alarming rate.

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