Malawi NGOs urge govt to abandon ‘spy machine’

The Centre for Human Rights and Rehabilitation (CHRR) and the Centre for Development of the People (CEDEP) have called on Malawi Communications Regulatory Authority (Macra) to abandon the implementation of what’s become known as the “spy machine”.

The human rights organisations through their leaders, Undule Mwakasungula (CHRR) and Gift Trapence (CEDEP) said in statement made available to Nyasa Times that they join Malawian voices of concern in asking MACRA to abandon Call Detail Records (CDRs) of individuals – the  ‘spy machine’ project.

“We add to the voice that from the onset, the machine has been a source of discomfort among telecom  operators as well as Malawians who have been left in a guess-work exercise on the government’s real intentions for purchasing the ,” CHRR and CEDEP said in the statement.

Macra forked out a whopping US$6.9 million for the machine from US based Agilis International.

But Macra’s position has been that the machine would benefit both the government and operators. It says the equipment would recoup money used for its purchase – and turn a profit within 18 months.

The NGOs said they take note that, officials from Macra have been defiantly defensive of the move, straddling the innocence line by arguing that the purpose for the controversial machine only stops at revenue and quality assurance among telecom operators.

They pointed out that what keeps feeding the citizens’ fears is the fact that the whole move to purchase the machine by the government-controlled regulatory body under the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) led government “was shrouded in a veil of secrecy, an unwelcome move reminiscent of how equally unpopular moves such as the introduction of quota system policy in the selection of students to public universities and the change of the national flag were rushed through.”

Undule: CHRR boss warns against implementing spy machine

“We note that no platform for open debate and consultations was provided by Macra on the need to purchase and usage of the ‘spy machine’. Instead, the regulatory body embarked on a fear-dispelling task through media debates well after the machine had already been purchased.  And we selected and doctored briefings with civil society groups,” said the statement.

Infringing people’s rights

The groups note that the ‘Spy Machine’ can monitor and analyses telecommunications services including SMS and Internet usage in real time.

“And, we all know how the DPP led government was good at using government controlled bodies such as Macra to stifle dissenting views. There was no real assurance from Macra (a body that has never been independent of government in practice) that government would not use the security-sensitive feature to settle scores with its political opponents and civil rights activists who were always demanding good governance and rule of law.”

Further, the rights organisations said the machine, with politics lurking around it, may end up jeorpadising citizens’ right to privacy as stipulated in the Malawi Constitution and under several international human rights instruments, protects the right to personal privacy –which shall include the right not to be subject to -interference with private communications, including mail and all forms of telecommunications.

CHRR and CEDEP also backed Professor Mathews Chikaonda recent attack on MACRA over spy machine and agreed with him that in countries like South Africa and USA the machine is handled by security apparatus “and not an institution with small and unsecure offices at Ginnery Corner where a messenger in a night time can just go and monitor the President’s call.”

PP can make a difference

The groups said they “humbly ask the Peoples Party (PP) led government to abandon the implementation of this controversial ‘Spy Machine’ altogether.”

They argue that the PP government “will be sending bad signals” to Malawians if it goes ahead to implement “what was DPP’s plan to bludgeon the critics into extinction through the machine.”

They have also asked government “to say something” to Malawians on this Spy Machine.

The telephone operators have been resisting the implementation of the machine arguing that subsciber’s private information will not be safe as it will be handled by a third party, Macra.

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