Southern African countries including Zambia, Malawi, Namibia and Zimbabwe are grappling with the question of whether to intercept and monitor mobile phone calls as well as Internet and other electronic services including communications over social networks.
While some countries are opening the telecom sector to all forms of services and social networks, others are closing up, claiming Internet and mobile phones are putting the security of the countries at risk. A number of laws and regulations are being developed by some Southern African countries that give powers to regulators, service providers and government security agents to censor Web sites and intercept mobile and Net-based calls.
But the technology sector is warning that the censorship laws are certain to scare away investments by regional and international service providers that may fear that investing in such countries restricts their freedom to roll out new services, including 3G technology.
The Malawi Communications and Regulatory Authority (Macra) has announced that it has passed a new regulation under which it will start monitoring the Internet and intercepting all electronic communications throughout the country. Macra is Malawi's telecom sector regulator. But it is the first time that the regulator is being given censorship powers by the government.
ISPs in Malawi will also be pressed by the new law to monitor social-networking sites including Twitter, Facebook and the Malawiana -- a local social-network site -- and any so-called "illegal content" in e-mail communications by Malawians on Yahoo, Hotmail, Gmail and other e-mail services.
The law also means that digital satellite televisions will also be censored in Malawi.
Malawian Minister of Information Leckford Thotho said the government passed a law creating a new tool for censorship because the number of people with Internet and mobile phones access has increased over the past years.
"As the number of Internet users has been growing steadily over the past years, there is now a need to monitor what people were doing on the Internet to ensure that they do not involve themselves in unlawful acts," Thotho said.
Internet users in Malawi are already complaining that the Malawian government will be violating their privacy by reading e-mail and listening to their conversations.
Malawi has become the second country in Southern Africa after Namibia to develop Internet and mobile censorship laws. In July Namibian lawmakers passed the spy law, which calls for interception centers to be manned by secret service officers who can screen e-mail, SMS (short message system) texts and Internet usage, including banking services.
The Zambian government, on the other hand, said it has developed laws that allow people to communicate without government interference. The new Zambian law further allows service providers to deploy any form of technology on their networks that will allow subscribers to have access to services available around the world.
Zambian President Rupiah Banda said Zambian government was committed to providing an ICT regulatory environment that encourages private sector participation in the Zambian economy. Aware that spy laws scare away international telecom investors, Banda said he is confident that the current ICT reforms would generate national development through the use of ICT.
Banda said the Zambian government wants to use technology to enhance the country's national profile and its standing as a regional ICT hub.
The Zimbabwean government drafted and presented the spy bill to parliament, but it was later withdrawn after people protested.