Telcos block SMS services in Central African Republic

The right to communicate is being curtailed across Central African Republic (CAR), under government mandated service restrictions meant to stop political protests.

On Monday, June 2, the Telecommunications Ministry sent a letter to mobile service providers requesting they shut down SMS service nationwide. The Central African Republic’s main mobile providers include OrangeRCA, a subsidiary of the French telecom company; MOOV, a subsidiary of Emirates’ Etisalat; Global Telecom/Vimpelcom’s Telecel; and Azur of Bahrein-registered Bintel.

By the following Friday all four mobile providers in the country had complied, leaving users without SMS mobile text service in the midst of political demonstrations. Protesters had mounted a mass text campaign to organize a general strike, aimed at getting the transitional government that came to power in January to resign.

Access condemns the government’s moves to curtail free expression and association in the Central African Republic over the past week, executed through restrictions on the international telcos working throughout the CAR. Government authorities should immediately rescind the order suspending national SMS services.

The CAR government had contemplated further restrictions on telecommunications, including threatening to cut off international mobile roaming. However, following an outpouring of concern from the international community, the government has backed away from this position. Specifically, on Thursday June 12, Orange notified Access that the CAR government requested it terminate the provision of roaming services in the country. This action would particularly affect foreign journalists currently operating in the CAR, severely hampering their ability to report on protests, undermining freedom of the press and access to information. Access advised Orange to adhere to the steps noted in the Telco Action Plan as they respond to government requests that would restrict user rights. In addition, Access advised Orange to provide access to remedy for users adversely affected by the SMS shutdown and other restrictions.

Despite its compliance with government directives, Orange should be commended for immediately reaching out to stakeholders over the roaming termination request. Their outreach partially succeeded: the CAR Telecoms Ministry withdrew its initial demand for across-the-board roaming restrictions, possibly as a result of NGO and French diplomatic interventions. It appears the government backed down for now, but the situation on the ground remains unstable, and Access and our partners remain on alert for future threats to communications rights in the CAR.

Background: Escalation of ethnic and religious violence

The CAR has seen a tit-for-tat campaign of ethnic and religious violence between the country’s Muslim and Christian populations since attempts to overthrow the government in 2012. U.N. officials have warned that this conflict could spiral into genocide.

Current CAR President Catherine Samba-Panza has called for an International Criminal Court (ICC) inquiry into the violence committed over the past two years, including under the previous President Michel Djotodia. The ICC agreed to open a preliminary investigation.

In April 2014, the U.N. Security Council authorized a U.N. peacekeeping force of up to 10,000 troops, which will be ready to deploy in September.

Following recent violence during protests, the CAR government sought to cut off communications to keep people from organizing anti-government protests, rather than taking effective action to directly stop violence.

Known risks

Telecom companies operating in CAR should have performed extensive due diligence on the potential risks prior to developing their operations there. Orange, for instance, received a 20-year insurance policy from the World Bank to protect its CAR investments from “expropriation, war and civil disturbance, and breach of contract.” Vimpelcom has announced its intention to divest from CAR, where “a large part of the country is considered insecure from a personal safety perspective.” It’s not clear whether Etisalat or Azur have carried out risk assessments. Based on this type of due diligence, though, the companies should have foreseen and resisted unlawful attempts to use their networks for repressive aims.

Access calls on the CAR government to strictly adhere to its international human rights obligations, in particular its commitment to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). Specifically, lifting the ban on SMS text messages would mitigate the violation of freedoms of expression and association.

Access advises all telecom operators to publicly reveal any requests that would restrict human rights, and work with civil society groups and other national governments to relieve pressure on their in-country staff to comply with unlawful CAR governmental requests. Telecom operators should coordinate amongst themselves to mitigate the impacts of the SMS shutdown, restore service as soon as possible, and prevent any further violations of user rights.