Telco Hall of Shame: MTN

Hall of Shame: MTN Group


Inductee: MTN Group

Headquarters: South Africa

CEO: RS Dabengwa

Board Chairman: MC Ramaphosa

MTN Board of Directors

Corporate Info

Network Size: More than 176 million people

Countries of Operations:

Afghanistan, Benin, Botswana, Cameroon, Congo Brazzaville, Cote d’Ivoire, Cyprus, Ghana, Guinea-Bissau, Guinea Conakry, Iran, Liberia, Nigeria, Rwanda, South Africa, Sudan, Swaziland, Syria, Uganda, Yemen, and Zambia.

Finances: 2011 profits 23,787 million Rn.


Filtering and content controls

“Various MTN operations have filtering solutions in place, reviewing SMS, MMS and WAP content based on in-country legal and regulatory requirements. Content relates to illicit material, and in some cases, also extends to SPAM control from partners. “

Ethics and rights

“We work within the laws of the countries where we operate.

In early 2012, we set up a Board Social and Ethics Committee which provides guidance on how we handle complicated issues, including human and civil rights. We believe also there is a role for international bodies to draw up suitable codes of engagement with governments, and MTN is keen to draw on the expertise of third parties to think through how these issues are handled.”

Governments and Regulators

“Telecommunications is a regulated industry, and MTN Group engages actively with governments and regulators in all the countries in which it operates.

MTN strives to participate fully in dialogue with governments and regulators on policy and legislative issues and frameworks. While we will lobby for fair treatment in the business interest, we respect the laws of countries in which we operate and the terms of our licence conditions. We endeavour to fulfil the terms of our licence obligations and to go the extra mile in facilitating universal access to communications services. We will not in any way compromise the national interest of countries where we do business.”


Allegations of license-for-weapons bribery and surveillance in Iran

MTN is being sued in U.S. District Court of the District of Columbia by Turkish telecom Turkcell for interfering with its contract for 3G service in Iran. Turkcell says MTN offered Iran weapons (including military helicopters and sniper rifles), and UN votes. Former MTN Irancell executive Chris Kilowan has testified that MTN offered to “provide access by the Iranian Ministry of Defense to MTN’s devices” to “facilitate installation of eavesdropping technology on MTN devices” and technical help with spying on Iran’s citizens. MTN is also accused of offering hundreds of thousands of dollars in bribes to South Africa’s ambassador in Iran and Iran’s deputy foreign minister. Turkcell claims it was first awarded the 3G license that MTN secured in 2005 and holds to this day.

MTN’s internal investigation found no wrongdoing in securing the Iran license. Additionally, the company claims that there is not “any evidence that the Iranian government has used the data collected to identify and locate citizens or dissidents.”

The allegations, made by Turkcell in papers filed in a US court, led to the suspension of South Africa’s former ambassador to Tehran.

South African Human Rights Commission was asked by South African Democratic Alliance PM David Maynier to investigate MTN’s role in the Iranian post-election crackdown of 2009.

Maynier is also requesting copies of MTN’s records which would reveal possible human rights violations in Iran.

Political SMS filtering

The Ugandan Communications Commission confirmed that it ordered MTN to filter text messages containing words and phrases such as “Egypt,” “people power,” or “dictator” ahead of contested elections.

Network shutdowns and filtering in Syria

MTN’s network was part of a complete internet shutdown in Syria in November 2012. All telecoms in Syria are reputed to share a building with the Syrian Ministry of Communication and Technology, which requires them to connect through the Syrian Telecommunications Establishment. This, along with the the structure of the shutdown, suggest that, unlike the Egypt shutdown of 2011, MTN and other telecoms did not have technical control over their networks during the event.

In 2012, MTN Syria blocked political text messages being sent across its networks. Words and phrases such as “strike,” “dignity,” “massacres,” or “we invite/all you to a demonstration” triggered the filter. MTN responded to the filtering controversy by stating that “we conduct our business in line with conditions provided for in our operating license.”


MTN hired a PR firm to find ways to improve its public image. The firm reached out to Access, which published a reply demanding changes in MTN’s activities, and not merely its image.

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