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US slams Malawi over social media blocking, killings

Halts $350 million aid package in response to repressive measures

The U.S. government has suspended a US$350 million aid package to Malawi in response to repressive moves by the Malawian government that resulted in 19 deaths and the blocking of social media networks including Twitter, Facebook and news websites in a bid to quell protests that rocked the country last week.

The Malawian government, through the telecom sector regulator, the Malawi Communication Regulatory Authority (MACRA) ordered ISPs to shut down and radio stations to desist from offering live broadcasts of protests, claiming such coverage may incite violence.

The U.S. government immediately condemned the blocking of social media networks in Malawi as well as the ban imposed on radio stations.

This week, the U.S. government through the Millennium Challenge Corp. (MCC), which provides development assistance to countries that demonstrate good governance, said it was suspending the aid package.

"At the core of an MCC partnership is the expectation that countries maintain a demonstrated political pluralism, human rights and the rule of law throughout the life of the program," said the MCC in a statement July 26. "The MCC is deeply concerned with the recent events in Malawi and is placing an immediate hold on all program operation in order to review its partnership with Malawi."

The U.S. government becomes the second country in one month to suspend aid to Malawi, after the U.K. The suspension of aid packages by the two countries may ignite more protests aimed at ousting the president as the the country's economic situation deteriorates further.

The MCC's aid to Malawi sought to reduce energy costs to businesses and households and improve efficiency in the agriculture, manufacture and service sectors, along with supporting the preservation and creation of employment opportunities in the Malawian economy.

Malawian president Bingu Wa Mutharika accused protesters of committing treason and arrested more than 500 people. On Tuesday, about 250 of those arrested appeared in different courts charged with various offenses ranging from looting, theft and arson.

Malawian Vice President Joyce Banda on Sunday told the Zambian newspaper, The Post, that she backed the demonstrations against the despotic rule of Wa Mutharika, describing the two-day protests as, "a fulfillment of the people's constitutional right to associate, assemble and demonstrate."

Private radio stations were not allowed to broadcast the demonstrations live. The Nyasa Times website, a U.K.- based news website, experienced massive and repeated distributed denial-of-service (DDOS) attacks that brought its servers down and disrupted its coverage of the protests.

As in many other African countries, the Malawian government is coming under increasing pressure on the economy, due to increases in fuel and food prices as well as a severe shortage of foreign currency.

Social media is believed to have played a major role in the uprisings in North Africa including the popular movement that oust Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and Tunisia's Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali this year.

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