URGENT APPEAL FOR AFFORDABLE INTERNET AND MOBILE PHONE SERVICES IN MALAWI IN VIEW OF NEW COVID-19 RESTRICTIONS
CHRR, YAS, HREP AND CIPESA POSITION
We, the undersigned, civil society organisations welcome new measures announced by the government to contain the spread of the Coronavirus, including suspension of all public gatherings such as meetings and workshops. In view of these measures, we wish to make an urgent appeal to the government to immediately reduce the cost of Information communication technology (ICT) services, especially the Internet and mobile phones, in Malawi. This is particularly important since with the suspension of all public meetings, individuals and organisations will have to rely on the Internet for communication, meetings, ecommerce and eLearning.
We note with deep concern that currently the Internet is priced beyond the reach of the majority of Malawians. A monthly data bundle of 10GB costs MK15, 500 with both TNM and Airtel, which is about half the monthly income of the average Malawian. Currently, the minimum wage stands at K35, 000. Plans by the new administration to peg the minimum wage at MK50, 000 are commendable but even at this amount, the cost of the Internet is still beyond the reach of minimum wage earners.
We are concerned that the country has maintained a 17.5 percent value-added tax (VAT) on mobile phones and services, a 16.5 percent VAT on Internet services and an additional 10 percent excise duty on mobile phone text messages and Internet data transfers, introduced in 2015 . The result of these taxes is that access to the Internet is extremely expensive for average Malawians, putting the majority of the population, which is poor and rural-based, at a huge disadvantage and shutting them out of access to crucial services like mobile banking, access to relevant content and information, as well as access to essential communications platforms that could help lift them out of poverty.
In light of the new COVID-19 restrictions announced by the government, affordable internet access is crucial to enable continuity in public service provision, business operations, access to health services, eLearning, and remote work. Moreover, the Internet, mobile phones and related technologies are playing a crucial role in the fight against COVID-19 by facilitating access to information on health and safety during the pandemic.
The manifestos of the Tonse Alliance partners contain commitments regarding ICT services and affordability. In the Malawi Congress Party (MCP) Manifesto, for instance, we note a commitment
to reduce the cost of ICT services, through among other things, securing access to the new submarine infrastructure along the East African coast; review of the taxation regime of the ICT sector; extending broadband Internet connection to all urban and rural centres through roll out of a fibre optic cable network; and removal of all tariff and non-tariff barriers on equipment and devices (including laptops and computers, cables, modems, routers etc.) in order to reduce the cost of broadband Internet.
Indeed, the third Malawi Growth and Development Strategy (MGDS III) (2017–2022), recognises ICT among the five priority areas in accelerating development. The strategy aims to increase access to ICT services; provide well-developed ICT broadband and infrastructure services; and increase the number of ICT-skilled and industry-ready workforce in public and private sector institutions.
Reducing the cost of the Internet is in line with Malawi’s laws, which favour expanding access to the citizenry. We note, for instance, that Section 157 of the Communications Act of 2016 provides for a Universal Service Fund. The law mandates the Malawi Communications Regulatory Authority (MACRA) “to ensure that the provision of universal services is made on affordable tariffs that are accessible to all.” Yet still, Malawi has lower levels of Internet access in comparison with regional neighbours such as Zambia, where Internet penetration rates are around twice as high as those in Malawi. According to the 2018 Malawi Population and Housing Census, only 13.8% of the population uses Internet in Malawi. The Inclusive Internet Index 2020 , which assesses Internet availability, affordability, relevance of content and readiness ranks Malawi 97th out of 100 countries. Malawi is currently ranked 52 out of 61 countries in Internet affordability.
Similarly, the percentage of people with access to mobile phones is relatively low. According to the 2018 Malawi Population and Housing Census Report, only 51.7 percent of the total households had a mobile phone. We are aware that the Malawi Government has waived duty on the importation of essential goods for the prevention and treatment of COVID-19 as an additional measure in the fight against the further spread of COVID-19. We call upon authorities to include mobile phones and Internet data bundles as essential services. Mobile phones have an important role to play in the prevention and response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
We commend the new administration for its commitment to upholding human rights. However, we wish to point out that access to the Internet is fundamental in promoting rights such as freedom of expression, access to information and freedom of association and assembly. In July 2016, the United Nations declared access to the Internet to be a human right. During the 21st and 24th sessions of the Human Rights Council in 2012 and 2013, State Parties were reminded of their obligation “to respect and fully protect the rights of all individuals to assemble peacefully and associate freely, online as well as offline.” In addition, in July 2018, a resolution entitled “the promotion, protection and enjoyment of human rights on the Internet” was again adopted in consensus by the Council.
Against this background, we, therefore, urge the new government to:
Implement the provisions of the Universal Service Fund to ensure affordable and accessible Internet in the countr