Free speech advocates in Malawi have condemned the arrest of a nurse for insulting President Lazarus Chakwera during a WhatsApp debate on governance.
Malawi police said 39-year-old Chidawawa Mainje was charged with cyber harassment and faces up to five years in prison and a fine of $2,500 if found guilty.
Mainje was arrested after using an expletive on the instant messaging service about how the president has done nothing to change the lives of people who voted for him.
Police say Mainje’s arrest is in line with the Electronic Transactions and Cyber Security Act 2016, which prohibits insulting someone online.
Harry Namwaza is the deputy spokesperson for the Malawi Police Service.
“You can’t enjoy your freedom or your rights while at the same time you are infringing the rights of others. It doesn’t work like that. There should be a responsibility. So, it’s a criminal offense. That’s why we have arrested him,” Namwaza said.
The nurse’s arrest comes a week after police in the capital, Lilongwe, arrested a 51-year-old man for allegedly insulting the minister of labor in his WhatsApp group post.
Michael Kayiyatsa is the executive director for the rights group, Center for Human Rights and Rehabilitation.
He said the arrest is a violation of freedom of expression.
“The guy who was arrested was expressing an opinion which was not favorable to the president. But it’s within his right to express such views, and he is protected by Section 35 of our constitution," Kayiyatsa said. "So, the best that police should have done is simply to provide advice, but this is somebody expressing their views.”
Kayiyatsa said there is a need for cybercrime legislation to be reviewed and at the same time clarified in some sections, adding that politicians could use the measure to silence dissenting views.
“Especially Section 86, which is talking about offensive communication that needs to be reviewed," Kayiyatsa said. "And also, there is need for clarity, because in the absence of clarity, such provisions can be abused to target online users, which is worrisome.”
According to Kayiyatsa, more than 15 people have been arrested for contravening the legislation by speaking ill of government officials and associates since Chakwera took power two years ago.
Another human rights activist, Billy Banda of Malawi Watch, said he feels the police are now being used to help shield the current administration from public criticism.
“The police are not entitled in any way to sound like they are protecting one particular individual," Banda said. "Are the police able to look back? We had the former president, professor Peter Mutharika. He was insulted. He never in any way arrested or directed anybody to be arrested.”
Namwaza said authorities are just reinforcing the law, regardless of one's status in society.
“Of course, people may have different opinions, but we are bound to ensure that laws are being respected, laws are being enforced," Namwaza said. "So, we are just doing our job.”
The National Organization of Nurses and Midwives in Malawi warned on Sunday that it would stage a nationwide strike if the police did not release Mainje unconditionally.
The leader of the organization, however, announced later that the group reversed its position, saying it observed that Mainje was making the remarks in his personal capacity and not on behalf of the organization.
In the meantime, police said Mainje is expected to appear in court Wednesday.