16 September 2010

Mozambique: Text Messages - Vodacom Comes Clean

Maputo — Vodacom-Mozambique, one of the country's two mobile phone operators, has now admitted that it was indeed ordered by the regulator, the INCM (Mozambique National Communications Institute), to shut down its text messaging service last week.

Riots against price increases that paralysed Maputo on 1-2 September were coordinated by text message. So when, on 6 September, the text message services of both Vodacom and the publicly-owned company, M-Cel, suddenly stopped, there were strong suspicions that a government order had gone out to the two operators, perhaps because there were fears - unjustified, as it turned out - of renewed rioting.

When reporters contacted both operators, they denied any political interference, and claimed the text message function had been knocked out for technical reasons.

But at a press conference held by Vodacom on Thursday to announce price reductions in its 3G Internet service, the company's Chief Executive Officer, Jose dos Santos, effectively admitted that an order had been received.

When AIM asked him how customers could trust Vodacom after the abrupt and unexplained interruption to the text messaging service, Santos said "This matter has already been spoken of, and I have no further comment to make".

A rather more detailed statement was given on Wednesday by Portia Maurice, the Vodacom Group's Head of Corporate Matters, based in Johannesburg, who confirmed that the group's subsidiary in Mozambique had received an instruction from the INCM to suspend temporarily text messaging.

Vodacom's justification for this is that it had no choice. It is committed to obeying Mozambican laws, and so could not disregard an instruction from the regulator.

But it is very doubtful whether the INCM order was legal. The Mozambican constitution guarantees freedom of expression, which was clearly violated when a legal messaging service, which clients have paid for, was suddenly suspended.

Constitutional freedoms can be suspended - but only if the government declares a state of siege or state of emergency, which it may do in the event of aggression, or a serious threat to the constitutional order. In fact, no state of siege or state of emergency was declared.

The sequence of events with Vodacom is now fairly clear. On 6 September the instruction from the INCM was received and Vodacom duly shut down the messaging service. On the afternoon of 7 September, Transport and Communications Minister Paulo Zucula publicly declared that he had given no instruction to suspend text messaging. So Vodacom reinstated the service.

The next morning, however, the INCM issued a second instruction to close down the service. Again Vodacom complied, and the suspension was only lifted later that day.

This Wednesday, the managing director of the INCM, Americo Muchanga, interviewed by the weekly paper "Savana", denied that the INCM had given any order to the two operators to suspend text messaging.

But "Savana" pointed out that it is in possession of a copy of the written instruction, signed by the INCM chairperson, Iisidoro Silva. Muchanga then declared that all he knows about the matter is what was published in the media.

"I know nothing about this", he said. "I work directly with the Board of Directors, but I never heard about this document".

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