The announcement by Minister of Information and Civic Education, Nicholas Dausi, in Parliament that telecommunication companies should forthwith stop the mandatory SIM card and generic numbers registration exercise has dominated headlines in the Malawi press on Wednesday and attracted criticism in the leader pages of the two daily newspapers.
According to Dausi, the suspension follows what he called public concerns on the exercise and government wants to conduct a nationwide civic education campaign for the exercise.
Some of the concerns from the public has been on suspicion that the on-going SIM card registration is a ploy by government to listen into people’s private telephone conversations, check SMS and monitor internet activity in real time using the ‘spy machine’ at Malawi Communications Regulatory Authority (Macra).
And legislators raised the concerns in Parliament that the eavesdropping could be impinging on people’s right to privacy.
In an editorial comment in The Nation newspaper, it said the intentions of the exercise are noble but its implementation leave a lot to be desired.
“When, for instance, did government realise the need for civic education?” queried the paper.
It said: “If government had done its homework well, it would obviously have avoided a situation where the exercise is abruptly stopped almost half way through after some people have already walked long distances to the registration centres, others have already incurred transport costs to have their SIM cards and phone numbers registered.”
The paper also pointed out that telecommunications companies – Airtel Malawi Limited and Telekom Networks Malawi, TNM Limited – invested a lot of money in the exercise by, among other things, putting aside personnel and setting up registration centres.
“It is therefore, an abomination to burden the companies further with civic education, especially when such an exercise belongs to Macra and the Ministry of Information,” reads the editorial in part.
The paper concluded that government should, therefore, stop “flip-flopping” and “politicking” over this exercise.
Under the title “Sim card registration chaos is avoidable’, Malawi’s flagship Daily Times newspaper wrote on its editorial comment that the exercise has been politicised and blames government for failing to popularising the law after Parliament passed it.
The mandatory SIM card registration is by law provided for under Section 92 of the Communications Act which Parliament passed in 2016
The Daily Times says Malawians feel “ambushed” that the government has just sprung from nowhere to hurriedly implement the exercise.
It noted that law-abiding Malawians have nee queuing for hours on end at customer =care centre of telecommunications companies just to have their particulars capture.
“As the economy is struggling, Malawians cannot afford to waste such valuable time in front of customer-care desks,” the paper said.
It also questions if Minister of Information, Dausi has the powers to suspend implementation of the law.
“We fear that if not properly handled, the suspension is setting a bad precedent that can lead to further abuse of some good laws in Malawi,” the paper said.
Commenting on the situation social and political commentator Humphrey Mvula said the tendency by the government to rescind decisions signifies lack of proper consultations with the corridors of power.
He said Malawi has “serious policy contradictions” and that they like to take people by surprise.
Political scientist Ernest Thindwa from University of Malawi’s (Unima) Chancellor College said the decision to suspend the SIM cards registration is “an indication of lack of planning” in government.
He said any decision that is reverses is “costly in all aspects.”