The recent move by the Posts and Telecommunications Regulatory Authority of Zimbabwe (POTRAZ) in directing mobile service providers to scrap various promotions, which they have been giving subscribers, has raised concern that government is trying to curtail freedom of expression.
Some people, who spoke to Studio 7, said they are concerned that the directive for Zimbabwe’s three mobile operators - Econet Wireless Zimbabwe, Net One and Telecel – to stop free airtime promotions could be could be government’s way through the regulatory authority of bridling freedom of expression.
One Bulawayo resident, Tinaye Shumba, said she is suspicious of the move given the fact that activists behind many of the protests that have occurred in the country have been making use of social media.
Chairperson Iphithule Maphosa of Zapu’s Bulawayo province echoed similar sentiments describing the move as typifying the Zanu PF government’s disregard of citizens.
“We are dealing with a government that has disregarded any need for consulting citizens on important issues. They are trying to use the authority to curtail the use of mobile phones by citizens especially in view of the increasing use of social media by anti-government protesters. Another view is the government, broke as it is, is seeking to boost revenue on taxation of voice calls which have been going down in the face of cheaper data services,” Maphosa said.
PROTECTING NATIONAL SECURITY
Studio 7 was not able to get comment from POTRAZ on the issue but Econet Wireless Zimbabwe chief executive Titus Mboweni confirmed that they have been directed by POTRAZ to stop the promotions.
The three mobile service providers recently issued notices that the regulatory authority had directed them to stop with immediate effect the various promotions that they were providing to clients.
A resident, who only identified herself as Michelle, said the move though unpopular, is one way of government’s attempt to protect national security, adding that such measures are now a common occurrence across the globe.
Michelle said this move may scale down the use of the internet by political activists.
Koliwe Majama, a broadcasting and information technology programs officer with the Media Institute of Southern Africa, told Studio 7 that her organization has, together with other stakeholders, met with POTRAZ in the past to discuss this issue and the pricing of internet or data services by service providers.
ARMED FORCES THREATS
Majama said while the directive is within POTRAZ’s mandate as the supervisory body what is worrying is that it is coming at a time when there have been threats from the armed forces to citizens over abuse of social media.
She said, “It is important to note that POTRAZ is well within its mandate to regulate tariffs and competition. But this particular move is very worrying especially when in the past week we have had warnings from even the army relating to the use of social media, and this obviously coming at a time when there has been a lot of activism or mobilization and free expression on the internet.
“So we are concerned. We welcome the fact that POTRAZ would like to control how long a period certain promotions should run, but all this should be transparent, it should be non-discriminatory and in the interests of upholding freedom of expression,” Majama noted.
Deputy director Butler Tambo of the Centre for Public Engagement, speaking as an independent policy analyst, slammed the move saying it would have a negative impact on business particularly small to medium enterprises as most of them will find it more expensive to communicate given the fact that the economy is already struggling.
“I think it’s generally a retrogressive move again in a country where there is very little disposable income for the common man and woman in the street. You would find that some of these platforms, because they were relatively cheap, people could now do business easily advertising their products through the various platforms. They could get customers and make that extra dollar that is so hard to come by in this economic environment,” Tambo said.
The POTRAZ directive comes at a time when government, through the information and communication technology ministry, is working on a computer and cyber-crime draft law which is said to be aimed at helping in enhancing national security while also bringing so-called abusers of social media to book.