African Internet Governance Forum, workshop highlight key issues in digital rights

By Lumbani Phiri, Lilongwe

July 19-21, 2022, were the busiest days for advocates of digital rights in Malawi as the country hosted the 10th edition of the Africa Internet Governance Forum (AIGF) held under the theme Digital Inclusion and Trust in Africa. The forum attracted participants from various countries and was complemented by a civil society organisations (CSOs) workshop organized the Center for Human Rights and Rehabilitation (CHRR) in collaboration with Paradigm Initiative on July 18.

CFED attended all the events and was represented by Miss Lumbani Phiri, an intern at the organization. She shares with us her take aways.

The workshop was organized by the African School on Internet Governance which is a joint initiative of the Association for Progressive Communications (APC), the Information Society division of the African Union  Commission (AUC) and Research ICT Africa. Malawi’s Minister of  Information and Digitization, Gospel Kazako, commented the initiative for bringing together players to discuss critical issues the continent is facing in access to internet. His remarks were collaborated by Bram Fudzulani, the president of the Information, Communication and Technology Association of Malawi (ICTAM) who said the forum was a huge win for African nations in digital inclusiveness. Some of the issues that reigned the discussions include digital skills, innovation, youth involvement, entrepreneurship, and networks.

Various Africa CSO leaders meeting Members of Malawi Parliament as part of the AIGF activities (Credits: Youth & Society)

One of the presenters, Gbenga Sean, described the ‘internet’ as a global network that connects people across the world. He said being connected is no longer a luxury thing, but a vital tool for a progressive living, and as such, there is need to address the rights surrounding the digital users because the meaningful uptake of ICT improves governance and promote development. Of recent, there has been an increase in digital rights violations in many countries such as governments imposing laws to restrict people from accessing the internet, criminalization of defamation on online platforms, internet blockages, and a proliferation of laws and regulations that undermine the potential of technology to drive socio-economic and political development on the continent.

Malawi, like other African countries, has enacted a number of laws bordering on promotion and protection of digital rights. These provisions recognize that the same rights that people have offline, such as freedom of expression, access to information, and the rights to privacy, must also be protected in digital spaces.

Research indicates that only 17.5% of population in Malawi has the access to the internet and it was stated that there is more to be done because the country is not doing well on the accessibility of ICT services. It was also highlighted that, it is so because of several challenges such as lack of internet infrastructure, knowledge gap in using internet gadgets, high illiteracy levels and high cost of internet services. Other challenges emerged with the restrictions that came with COVID-19. People were victimized online in the form of cyberstalking, online harassment, online defamation, and cyber bullying among others. Consequently, it has escalated because little attention was given to it.

The CSOs day-long workshop was held on July 18 and the main objective was to review key advocacy campaign issues surrounding digital rights and internet freedom law, and more broadly, the promotion and protection of digital space in Malawi. There was an open discussion on the criminalization of defamation on online platforms and majority of the participants suggested that the issue needs to be addressed because most people are afraid to express their opinions with the fear of getting arrested more specifically on political issues. Over 10 people have been arrested in Malawi for their comments on politicians on social media.

Some of the participants of the CSOs workshop (Credits: CHRR & Lumbani Phiri)

Some of the legislations that impact on digital rights and freedoms in Malawi including the freedom of expression and access to information are the Electronic Transactions and Cybersecurity Act of 2016 which restricts online communications on grounds of protecting public order and national security and the Communications Act of 2016 provides for the interception of communications and, at the same time, prohibits unlawful interception of communications.

While data privacy and protection remain an elusive, privacy is fundamental to the enjoyment of freedom of association and of assembly. However, in Malawi, there is a challenge in upholding the right to privacy and protection of personal data. Mass data collection has been evident through the National Registration Bureau (NRB), Immigration, Road Traffic Directorate, Malawi Electoral Commission (MEC), National Statistics Office (NSO), and other service providers such as hospitals, education institutions as well as the banks and telecommunication companies. Recently, telecommunications companies have been collecting large amounts of a personal data, more so with the introduction of mandatory SIM card registration.

Sadly, majority of ordinary citizens are not even aware of the implications of this national digital identity programme on their privacy. Since the country does not have a stand-alone privacy and protection law, data privacy and protection of citizens continues to be at risk, which is in itself is a violation of digital rights. Moreover, lack of comprehensive data protection laws in the country, also means that there is no single body mandated to regulate the collection of personal data in the country.

Malawi drafted the Data Protection Bill in 2021, and this was commended as a good step towards protection of personal data and privacy. The main objectives of the draft data protection legislation are to ensure that the processing of personal data complies with the principles of data protection, including privacy and data security, to provide individuals with rights with respect to the processing of personal data relating to them, to set standards for the transmission of personal data outside of Malawi. The bill highlights the positive and negative aspects, including its potential impact on freedom of expression, access to information online, and the right to privacy.

One of the participants and also an advocate of Digital Rights Bill, Jimmy Kainja who is also a Senior Lecturer at the University of Malawi, revealed that the Malawi has adopted the Nigerian digital rights bill because it speaks to the same issues affecting Malawi. He said except for currency and names, the content is the same.

Meanwhile, civil society organizations have said they will continue to put pressure on Malawi Government to speed up the process of passing of the data protection law and to review and amend other digital legislations like the freedom of expression of citizens online such as the Sedition Act, Penal Code, and the Electronic Transaction and Cyber security Act.

One of the organizations that is working to advance digital rights in Malawi, CHRR, on July 20 presented the digital rights bill to the parliament. Some of the issues presented are the criminalization of defamation, data security, cybersecurity, digital literacy, and data protection. Apart from Parliament, the civil society organizations are having direct engagement with the key policy and decision makers, holding panel discussions, workshops and awareness campaigns targeting both players and internet users.

CHRR emphasized that there is hope on the digital rights issues in Malawi because most of the advocacy groups(the Government, Researchers, Media, and Civil society organizations) are engaging and cooperating on the  subject matter which is so encouraging. The most encouraging consensus was that both the forum and workshop commended Malawi government on its efforts on having the Malawi Data Protection Act. They said there is hope at the end of the tunnel.

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