Malawi alert: E-Bill puts freedom of expression online in cross-hairs

In a move that may be seen by a number of media practitioners and some members of the public as having a negative impact on media freedom and freedom of expression, the government of Malawi, led by President Joyce Banda, has introduced a Bill that seeks to regulate and control online communications in Malawi.

“The main objective of the Malawian Government is to have the Republic of Malawi benefit from a true technological leap which may fasten its economic growth by enabling the development of new economic activities thanks to the implementation of a secure legal framework regulating the use of [information Communication Technologies – ICTs]” reads the introductory note to the Bill, which has been labelled the E-Bill.

Kasunda: The e-bill takes us back to the days of Section 46

The E-Bill purports to:

(a) Ensure that the development, deployment and exploitation of ICT within the economy and society and related legal provisions will balance as well as protect community and individual interests, including privacy and data protection issues.

(b) Address ethical issues in the use of ICT to protect the rights of children and the under-privileged.

(c) Define favourable tax policies that promote ICT products and services that originate from within the Republic of Malawi.

(d) Provide a responsive and efficient regulatory environment, promote economic subsectors, assets accumulation and tax activities that arise from ICT use.

In the biggest show yet of an attempt by the government of Malawi to regulate online media, including social media networks, the E-Bill also demands that editors of online public communication services offer make known their names, domicile, telephone and registration numbers.

It may also have serious consequences for those using encrypted devices such as Blackberry smartphones.

The E-Bill also introduces government-appointed “cyber inspectors” who will have the power to, among other duties, “monitor and inspect any website or activity on an information system in the public domain and report any unlawful activity to the [Regulatory] Authority.”

Members of the public have until Monday, 15 October 2012 to input on the Bill.

Reacting to the proposed Bill, Chairperson of the Malawi Chapter of the Media Institute of Southern Africa, Anthony Kasunda, said although it is the responsibility of the Executive to formulate Bills for consideration in Parliament, major stakeholders should not be left out during the consultative process.

Said Kasunda: “Unfortunately, with this proposed bill, it takes us back to the days of Section 46 when we cried foul that government sneaked the bill in Parliament and quickly passed it into law before stakeholders, such as the media, were adequately consulted. In the present scenario, we would ask government to extend the period for consultation to ensure that the bill has as much input as possible from all major stakeholders. It is clear that one of the aims of this piece of legislation is to regulate the online media and government has to tread very carefully on that.”

Section 46 of the Penal Code is the now-repealed law that previously enabled a cabinet minister to ban any publication deemed not to be in the public interest according to standards set by the particular minister.

Commenting on the developments in Malawi, MISA’s Programme Specialist for Media Freedom Monitoring and Research, Levi Kabwato, said although the government of Malawi had done a commendable thing in recognising the power of ICTs, especially the Internet, in fostering economic development, the Bill glaringly falls short of capturing such aspirations.

“If the Internet is to be used as tool for economic development as the Malawi government claims it seeks to do, then it is imperative that freedom of expression in cyberspace be the founding principle of this Bill and that simply isn’t the case,” Kabwato said.

He added: “The signal we are getting here is of a government that wants to restrict media freedom and freedom of expression, a government that wants to punish innovation rather than encourage it and a government that may have grown deeply suspicious of its citizens’ activities online probably because it doesn’t fully understand and appreciate the democratising power of the Internet and its applications. In the aftermath of progressive media reforms recently, this is not the path we expected Malawi to take.”

Download the first draft of the E-bill.

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