As the Web increasingly becomes a conduit for expression of social unrest, Zambia and Malawi are moving to close down and more closely monitor online media.
The attempts to shut down online news sites come in the wake of popular uprisings in Africa and the Middle East last year, and pose a threat to the growth of the Internet in the region, critics say.
Zambian President Michael Sata and his ministers have ordered the Zambia Information and Communication Technology Authority (ZICTA), the country's telecom regulator, to close down at least some online media outlets in the country, claiming they are promoting hate speech.
The main target of the initiative appears to be the Zambian Watchdog online news site. ZICTA has, however, failed to close down the site, which is hosted outside the country. The site's reporters in Zambia use various methods to disguise themselves and hide from the police.
However, the registrar of societies, Clement Andeleki, has announced he is de-listing the Watchdog online from the register of existing publications that pay annual statutory fees to continue operating.
"The Watchdog thinks we don't have the capacity to deal with them but we will use the necessary provisions of the law to ensure they are dealt with," Andeleki said at a media briefing last week. "We will not allow them to continue to be on the run or we will issue a warrant of arrest against them."
In Malawi, the government has drafted a law, the E-Bill, which seeks to regulate and control online communications including social media networks in the country. The bill would require that editors of online publications make known their names, domiciles and telephone numbers in addition to other information.
The E-Bill further introduces the concept of government-appointed cyber-inspectors who would have the power to, among other duties, monitor and inspect any website or activity on an information system in the public domain and report any unlawful activity to the regulatory authority.
The Media Institute of Southern Africa (MISA), a regional body protecting the interest of media organizations in Southern Africa, has issued an alert condemning the moves to clamp down on Internet publications.
"This isn't a positive trend at all," said MISA regional program specialist for media freedom, monitoring and evaluation Levi Kabwato in a statement. "Issues of Internet freedom and freedom of expression in cyberspace are rather new to the region and that partly explains the discomfort of both the Zambian and Malawi governments who may be frustrated at their lack of control over what is published online," Kabwato said.
Kabwato said that governments in the region must recognize that the online publishing phenomenon is not only irreversible, but more importantly, beneficial to the promotion and protection of democracy.