Freedom House’s Freedom on the Net, 2017 report shows that 2017 was, as Wire.com puts it, “terrible year for Internet freedom”. The report shows that almost half of the 65 countries assessed in 2017 experienced a decline in Internet freedoms during the assessment period. Less than one-quarter of users reside in countries where there are “no major obstacles to access, onerous restrictions on content, or serious violations of user rights in the form of unchecked surveillance or unjust repercussions for legitimate speech.”
Malawi is among the countries assessed and it is categorised as “partly free”. This category was arrived at for two distinct reasons: the first one is not much different from many countries assessment in the report; it has to do with direct government interference. The assessment finds that there were few cases where online news was subjected to “government manipulation”; the arrest of three opposition MPs over a WhatsApp conversation; and various provisions in the Electronic Transaction and Cyber Security Act, 2016, which are deemed as punitive and could be used by the government to “censor online content and dissent.”
The second reason is what the report calls the “availability and ease of access”. The report indicates that average connection speeds in Malawi have decreased from 1.8 Mbps (mega bit per second) in 2016 to 1.3 Mbps in 2017 – comparing the average connection speeds to global average of 7.0 Mbps, one could argue that Malawi really doesn’t have Internet to facilitate any meaningful development. The report observes that this means that Malawi has one of the “lowest and slowest growing rates of the Internet in the world, in stark contrast to the exponential growth in access among its neighbouring countries on the continent.”
For patriotic and proud Malawians these findings are unwelcome, of course yet the real problem is that the Malawi government and its policy makers still treat access to the Internet as a luxury. It is also treated as something that should punished with punitive tax measures ignoring the fact that Internet is a key driver of socioeconomic activities and therefore, national development. In this day and age, a country cannot attract investors if it doesn’t have stable, affordable and standard Internet connection speeds. Gone are the days when Internet could be viewed through the lens of Facebook and other social media platforms where citizens go pastime, entertainment and gossip.
The only time one hears Malawi government officials talking about the Internet is when someone in the position of power, usually politically connected wants social media regulated or some aspects of banned. Do Malawians really want to start this conversation when the Internet has not really taken off in the country? Such an approach only reduces the discussion to issues of social media abuse, which only begets the questions of censorship and tight control while ignoring the crucial issue of access and infrastructure development that would increase access quantitatively and qualitatively for all Malawians and not the privileged few.
The Freedom House report notices that the poor growth rates of Internet and mobile phone access in the country are largely a result of the high service costs for consumers. This include “a 17.5% VAT on mobile phones and services, a 16.5% VAT on internet services and an additional 10% excise duty on mobile phone text messages and internet data transfers.”
If one adds this, it comes up to 44% duty on Internet and mobile phone access in the country, ultimately making Internet and mobile phone access a luxury for the majority of Malawians; and, as noticed by the report: “shutting [majority of Malawians] out of an increasingly digital world of important services like mobile banking and money services that could help lift them out of poverty, as well as access to essential communications platforms.”
It is easy to blame poverty in such cases, as the report has done to an extent, yet measuring by the amount of tariffs Malawians pay to access mobile phones and the Internet, Malawi government policies have not been helpful in trying to bring Malawians online. This is not only reducing Malawi into a disconnected country but also a tiered society between the haves and the have-notes. Unfortunately, even the haves have little to celebrate as the expensive Internet speed is “frustratingly slow” and is decreasing due to “poor infrastructure management and lack of investment.”
Interestingly, Malawi government is aware of the importance of ICT for national development, this is clearly stated out in Malawi’s National ICT Policy, 2013. In its preface the policy states out: “ICT is essential for the sustainable development of Malawi … Implementation of ICT policy is encouraged by the prevalent political will existing in the country, which has seen the ICT sector being recognised as on the priority areas with potential of turning around the economy….”
Similarly, Malawi’s telecommunication regulator, MACRA has indicated in its 2015 – 2020 Strategic Plan that its “vision” is “universal access and usage of ICT services in Malawi.” And its “mission” is “to facilitate the development of the ICT Sector through efficient and effective regulation and research.”
The irony is that access to ICTs, particularly mobile phone and Internet services has not improved since 2015 when Malawi government imposed 10% VAT on an industry. This suggests that all these policy documents on ICT are merely a window dresser. The amount of VAT the government is getting from the industry indicates that Malawi government is mainly interested in making money—through taxes and operating licences while ignoring the benefits of ICT to the socioeconomic development of the country and its people.