Malawians are increasingly expressing themselves on the internet, especially social-media platforms that provide exceptional space for people’s participation in public affairs.
But there are concerns that while the advancement in digitalisation was supposed to uphold democracy, State agencies are trying their best to inhibit people’s freedom online.
This is not to imply that those who provide their views online should not be responsible in their expressions.
Ahead of the African Internet Governance Forum (AIGF), that Malawi hosted last week, various stakeholders called for a review of the country’s laws and policies so that digital rights and inclusion are a reality.
The forum examined problems pertinent to internet and its governance in Africa such as innovation and entrepreneurship, the resilience of cyber security, digital skills, dependable and inexpensive internet and digital infrastructure.
Government has been embarking on a number of high-profile technological projects with the goals of increasing government service delivery, improving financial management, expanding internet access, digitising government records and establishing a regulatory environment that is conducive to growth.
Some of them are the National Identity Card, the Malawi Traffic Information System, the Integrated Fiscal Management and Information System, the Automated System for Customs Data, the Unified Beneficiary Registry and the Personal Property Security Registry System.
Others are the National Switch Centre, the Judiciary Case Management Information System, the Machine Readable Passport Issuing System and the Virtual Landing Port.
It is no secret that the state of internet governance that addresses several aspects is still in infancy stage in Malawi.
Despite making progress in these high-profile technology projects, some of which are active, there are still some gaps in the delivery of critical digital services.
It should also be observed that despite low device penetration which is essential for a stable digital market and digital inclusion, internet in Malawi is generally not affordable.
Information and communications technology (ICT) expert, Vincent Kumwenda, notes that there are gaps in the delivery of critical digital services to the public and in the creation of an enabling regulatory environment for other service providers to develop innovative and transformative projects.
This is despite that the innovation and technological entrepreneurship ecosystem in Malawi has the potential to contribute to the socioeconomic development of the country.
“There is need to review the taxation on ICT services including internet to reduce the cost of access because these are issues crippling private sector progress,” Kumwenda says.
With everything going digital, the degree to which a nation is resilient to the effects of cyber-attacks is a good indicator of that nation’s ability to successfully deal with online hazards. On the global index, Malawi is placed in a relatively low position.
The country had a score of 36.83 out of a possible 100 points, placing it 94th out of 182 nations in a study that was conducted in 2020 by the International Telecommunication Union.
ICT infrastructure in the country which, according to cybersecurity expert Chikumbutso Chitsundi Banda is less safe, is to blame for the abysmal rating.
Banda shifts the blame on cyber security challenges Malawi has been facing to academic gaps on cybersecurity modules in academic institutions.
“A high percentage of our ICT personnel are not fully equipped with knowledge to do with cybersecurity. We must start with training of current ICT staff from organisations and government,” he says.
Banda stresses the importance of government regulating policies that govern cybersecurity.
“We need to improve our education structures and embed cybersecurity modules in all ICT academic institutions and government should take action in standardising policies on cybersecurity,” he says.
On the legal front, Malawi has enacted laws that deal with various activities online such as the Electronic Transactions and Cybersecurity Act.
These make provision for criminalising offences related to computer systems and ICT.
But Malawi Law Society president, Patrick Mpaka, notes gaps in the law.
“The data protection provisions in the Electronic Transactions and Cybersecurity Act, for instance, are inadequate to address data protection issues we face today,” Mpaka says.
He emphasises the importance of lawmakers enacting technology-regulatory legislation and urges them to familiarise themselves with the digital space.
“Basic principles do not change with time; so it will be advisable for legislators to fully familiarise themselves with and be informed by the fundamental principles of our Constitution in section 12 as they seek to regulate the internet space,” Mpaka says.
ICT Association of Malawi president, Bram Fudzulani, is of the view that Malawi should tap and learn from others on the continent.
“Surely, learning from countries like Kenya will allow us to look at our model and see if that is fit with the country’s development agenda and how we can align such programmes for regional integration,” Fudzulani says.