On Tuesday this week, Information Minister, Nicholas Dausi, announced that government had decided to defer implementation of the sim card registration exercise that was underway. Typical of the eloquent Dausi, he argued that the decision was taken because his is a listening government.
The announcement received mixed reactions from the public and telephone service providers. Some Malawians celebrated the development while others opted to continue with the exercise to avoid inconveniences in future. The providers also decided to proceed with the task.
But does government or the Minister have powers to suspend Implementation of the law?
In July 2016, the National Assembly passed Bill No. 24 of 2015: Communications Act which put in place a new Communications Act, effectively replacing the Communications Act of 1998.
The enactment of the new Communications Act sprung from a need to have in place a piece of legislation which would respond to vast changes, upgrades and developments in the communications sector which had since rendered the old Communications Act irrelevant. Among other things, the new Communications Act creates the need for registration of generic numbers and sim cards.
This is provided for in section 92 of the Act which states that: “A person who uses a generic number or owns or intends to use a SIM card for voice telephony services shall register that generic number or SIM card with any electronic communications licensee or with the distributor, agent or dealer of the electronic communications licensee, authorised to provide or sell generic numbers or SIM cards.”
In keeping with this law, the Malawi Communications Regulatory Authority (Macra), which is the implementing agency of government on this matter, directed that registration of sim cards be carried out from January 1 to March 31st, 2018.
However, the announcement by Macra faced some resistance.
The public’s reservations arose from the fact that Macra made the announcement without giving them time to prepare themselves for the exercise.
There was panic within the general public when Macra said those who would not register their sim cards would be barred from using the same.
Typical of any new initiative, rumour mills went in overdrive, trying to give meaning to the whole exercise. Naturally, conspiracy theories surrounding the issue had a tinge of politics.
Generally, the theories agreed that the ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) wanted to use data from the exercise to eavesdrop people’s conversations towards the 2019 Tripartite Elections.
The rumours piggybacked on popular beliefs that the DPP administration rigged past elections and that it was positioned to repeat its feared notoriety, come 2019 elections.
Such fears are normal in an open and robust democracy. And the debate that characterised the onset of the registration exercise was healthy.
Members of Parliament took Dausi to task to explain the fears.
But government forgot that the MPs fears largely centred on administrative and technical aspects of the implementation and not its spirit.
Malawi is the only country in the Southern African Development Community which allows people to buy sim cards the way they buy airtime. The vendors do not require to know their customers or reasons for the acquisitions.
Such unregulated sale of the sim cards has birthed a myriad of challenges. Unscrupulous people have used the cards to commit cyber-crimes. Criminals have swindled money from unsuspecting Malawians through dubious phone calls or messages. Other criminals have wrecked people’s marriages and professions by creating false voice and text conversations to frame others.
We must acknowledge that the world is taking issues of cyber-crime seriously and Malawi cannot afford to standby as all other countries implement progressive laws to combat the vice.
The fear should be the precedence government has set in this decision. Can a Cabinet minister just wake up one morning and say that because some people at Tulonkhondo or Kunenekude do not like a particular law, then that law has to be suspended? How far can a government go if this is left unchecked?
Civic education is an ongoing process. What the government would have done was to assure the MPs and all Malawians that the law was being implemented in good faith and that the exercise would be accessible in all corners of the country. The deadline would have been extended to allow more people to register their cards.
The MPs were also wrong to allow government to suspend the law through the use of a politically correct term called deferment. The law was dully enacted by the House and the same MPs spent tax-payers money to debate and agree on it. It is therefore, wrong for them to be party to the abrogation of the law.
The government must swiftly address people’s concerns on the exercise and allow the process to resume in earnest. This business of suspending laws brings back bad memories in Malawians as it smacks of de’ javu.
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