Inappropriate interference with MDC audio service

The Econet lines of the MDC audio news and information service were recently suspended a few days after its launch. The audio service called the Voice of Real Change launched by the Morgan Tsvangirai faction of MDC, offered mobile phone users a free call back service, in which they offered callers news roundups, a weekly message from Morgan Tsvangirai, information on the constitution making process, updates on party events and a platform for the public to leave their feedback. Econet suspended these mobile service lines due to pressure from the Broadcasting Authority of Zimbabwe (BAZ), likely due to knock on pressure from ZANU-PF.

The Herald of June 24, 2010 quoted the BAZ Chief Executive as saying that this type of audio service – which takes advantage of Interactive Voice Response (IVR) to share audio information with mobile phone users – is illegal under the Broadcasting Services Act. The article also quoted Media, Information and Publicity Permanent Secretary Mr George Charamba as saying that toll free services could only be used for humanitarian and marketing purposes. This incident brings up various noteworthy points:

  • Legal: Whilst mobile telephony is a relatively new area of the Information Communication Technology (ICT) sector, the definition of a “broadcasting service” as defined in section 2(1) of the Broadcasting Services Act, does not include IVR as such a service, nor is there anything in this or the Post and Telecommunications Act which states that a licence is required for such a platform. IVR is an integral part of telephone systems and is currently widely used around the world without any licence required, including in Zimbabwe where it is used by many businesses.
  • Telephone not a broadcasting service: Internationally it has never been suggested that using IVR changes the character of the service provided, from being a telecommunication service to a broadcasting service. Thus since IVR is a telecommunication service, it does not fall under the regulatory control of BAZ.
  • Information is a democratic right: In 1995 the Zimbabwe Supreme Court recognised the fundamental importance of the telephone service in the free exchange of information, which in itself was considered to be a fundamental right within a democratic society, see Retrofit (Pvt) Ltd v PTC & Anor 1995 (2) ZLR 199 (SC). Being able to disseminate information is a fundamental right and other comparable telephone services which disseminate information, such as bulk SMS’s are not censored for content, so why should IVR be?
  • Freedom of speech: On what basis does Mr George Charamba reserve toll-free services for humanitarian and marketing purposes? Why the distinction? Surely even political parties, including both the MDC and ZANU-PF, have the right to freedom of speech, within the parameters of democratic law, and have the right to use this type of innovative technology for their communication outreach? IVR is an exciting and innovative platform for Zimbabweans to exercise their basic freedom of speech and it should be available for all citizens to take advantage of.
  • The role of business: Other mobile operators like Net-one and Telecel continued to offer the MDC service. Considering Econet’s history and the fact that they fought tooth and nail for the right to operate the second mobile network service in Zimbabwe, it is disappointing to see them succumb in this way to government pressure. Anyway, how can Econet be said to support MDC, based on the grounds that they sold MDC toll free lines? Weren’t they just offering a paying customer a business service? And surely it is not the role of a business like Econet, to be distinguishing which customers can and can’t avail themselves of toll free lines or what information they can or can't share through this channel? Surely a national mobile network platform should be exactly that – a platform that all comers can use within the valid dictates of the law.
  • Missing out on the benefits: The World Bank recently stated that there is positive and direct correlation between growth in Gross Domestic Product (GDP) and ICT development. Information and technology lie at the heart of economic development. Why are we so afraid of liberalising our information and technology sectors? For instance VoIP is illegal in Zimbabwe and yet it continues to be a major revenue and employment generator in other countries like South Africa.
  • Setting the record straight: The Herald report also stated that the MDC service was “started as a, itself an MDC-T Trojan horse”. (rather than is proud to have pioneered the use of IVR for social communication in Zimbabwe and that the MDC has followed in our innovative footsteps, but just to set the record straight, is not involved in the MDC’s IVR service nor does it as an organisation have any partisan allegiance.