As Access reported last month, all four mobile providers in Central African Republic (CAR) shut down SMS services at the government’s request in early June. The shutdown violated every CAR user’s right to free expression and association at a critical time.
Some eight weeks later, SMS is finally coming back online in the country, as the government just lifted its order on Friday, July 26. It appears that CEOs of each of the country’s four telcos — Moov, Azur, Télécel, and Orange — jointly pushed back against the ban, and eventually succeeded in having it lifted.
Threat of ‘disciplinary sanctions’
Access has obtained the original order from the CAR government to four mobile providers requesting the shutdown. Find it translated below from the French.
The order came in the midst of political demonstrations, to suppress a campaign to organize a general strike against the transitional government that came to power in January 2014. In his order, Abdallah-Kadre Assane, the Minister of Planning, Economy and International Cooperation, cited national security law to justify the suspension of all SMS service.
The most chilling part of the order comes near the end, in which Minister Assane issues a threat of “disciplinary sanctions” for noncompliance, then asks for the “usual collaboration” from the telcos.
Telcos should not be subject to sanctions, especially to extrajudicial threats, for respecting a user’s right to free expression and association.
The “collaboration” that Minister Assane calls for is likely a euphemism for the backdoor deals, violating due process principles and the rule of law, that governments around the world continue to use to invade privacy and disrupt free expression and association online. An arm’s length relationship between telcos and security forces — or as in this case, ministers of “International Cooperation” — is necessary and proportionate to stopping the threats to user rights we see daily.
Peering shutdown order rescinded, and now SMS
Fortunately, though, providers in CAR learned quickly from the SMS ban. The government approached them two weeks later with a request to cut off all international networking agreements. It seems authorities wanted to telcos to isolate the whole country, by shutting down “peering” connections to the fiber-optic cables crossing the landlocked CAR’s borders. Rather than collaborate with the government, again, the telcos formed a united front to reject that order, and the government backed down.
Now, it appears that authorities lifted the SMS following a similar joint action by the telcos.
Though SMS has finally been unblocked, users are still at risk and have lost the benefits of SMS connectivity for nearly two months. Access now calls on government authorities and the telcos involved to immediately offer access to remedy and redress for suspending national SMS services. This remedy should take the form of, at the least, free SMS services for several weeks, and the start of further dialogue with stakeholders from government, civil society, and the telcos, to ensure these arbitrary shutdowns do not happen again.
Translation of CAR government order to shut down SMS:
Ministry of Postal service and Telecommunications in charge of new technologies
Head of Cabinet
Bangui, June 2nd, 2014
For CEO of Mobile Telecommunication in Central African Republic (Télécel ; Moov; AZUR; Organe)
Object: Provisional suspension of the use of SMS in the national territory
Following instructions of the Prime Minister, Head of Transitory Government, and conforming with the application of Article 18, paragraph 5 of the law n°07.022 of December 27, 2007, with aim to contribute to restoring security on the national territory, the use of SMS by every user of mobile phone is therefore suspended from Monday 2nd June until new order.
People contravening to this instruction expose themselves to disciplinary sanctions.
I’m counting on your full comprehension and usual collaboration. Rest assured, Sirs, of the expression of all my consideration.
Contribution by Gregoire Delette