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Comment & analysis

SMS message ban raises difficulties

Russell Southwood

2010-09-29, Issue 498

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The banning of SMS messaging in Mozambique is but one of several signs that both SMS (short message service) and the internet are changing the way media creates a national conversation in African countries, writes Russell Southwood.

During the food price riots in Mozambique, both mobile phone operators in Mozambique, M-Cel and Vodacom, bowed to pressure and suspended their text-messaging services but then said that they had not done so, according to Agência Informação Moçambique (AIM).

As from 6 September, people who used pre-paid M-Cel and Vodacom cards found it was impossible to send text messages. Since the Maputo riots of 1–2 September had been mobilised via text messages, it was immediately suspected that the government had ordered the companies to halt the text-message service.

But when Transport and Communications Minister Paulo Zucula was asked about the matter, he denied giving any such order. ‘I'm the minister in charge of communications, and I have no knowledge of any instruction to suspend the messaging services’, he told reporters.

Both M-Cel and Vodacom assured AIM that the interruption to the messaging service was entirely due to technical problems.

On Friday night, interviewed by the independent television station TIM, Fernando Lima, chairperson of the media company Mediacoop, which publishes the weekly paper ‘Savana’ and the daily newsheet ‘Mediafax’, displayed a copy of the letter which the regulatory body, the INCM, had sent to the two operators. Text messaging now seems to have returned to normal.

In the post-election violence in Kenya in 2008, the government considered closing down the SMS messaging system that was being used to send hate messages. Safaricom CEO Michael Joseph has said in a subsequent interview that mobile phone providers convinced the government to pass up this idea, and instead allow the providers to send out messages of peace and calm, which Safaricom did to all nine million of its customers.

It was also reported that a list of more than 1,700 contacts of individuals who created or forwarded SMS messages to incite ethnic violence had been compiled and was awaiting action by government.

However, the government did ban broadcasting and this gave coverage by Kenya's bloggers a new prominence as one of the few ways left open to discover what was happening. It also gave birth to Ushahidi, which helped to track and map violent incidents in the country.

The worst occasion of this kind of banning of SMS was the Ethiopian government after the contested elections in 2005. The ban remained in force for two years. In Ethiopia, the opposition party Kinijit was particularly effective at using text messaging to mobilise its supporters and get them to the polling booths. Then when the election result was announced the government took fright, contested what had happened and then moved quickly to shut down the SMS service to ensure the opposition party couldn't use it again.

With no acknowledgement of why it had been banned, subscribers simply received the following message announcing its re-opening: ‘[Wishing] you [a] happy Ethiopian Millennium. And now the SMS service is launched.’

SMS is a media channel but there are almost no ground rules governing either access to it by content providers or under what circumstances it can be closed down. Mobile operators can be pressured by governments to shut the service and have to take the income hit from that decision: their rights are not protected in any way. You can hardly sue the government or the regulator for loss of trade if they are the hand that gives you your licence to do business.

According to a national survey carried out in Ghana for Audiencescapes, 16 per cent of the sample had got news and information in the last week using SMS, compared to 18 per cent from newspapers. In other words, the mobile is becoming almost as important as newspapers as a channel through which citizens get certain types of information.

But there are no ground rules governing who can use it and why, and the rules that do exist don't make sense. For example, Econet had to withdraw a service it was proving to Zimbabwe's MDC (Movement for Democratic Change) as it was claimed that it was broadcasting when it was not licensed to do so. It was operating an information service for its activists using a service provided by

In an interview in June when the banning took place, Broadcasting Authority of Zimbabwe Chief Executive Obert Muganyura said that the MDC-T's (Movement for Democratic Change – Tsvangirai) toll-free audio service was illegal under the Broadcasting Services Act. ‘According to the law, broadcasts that are provided through cellular systems require a licence from BAZ [Broadcasting Authority of Zimbabwe]. There are services that have been offered by some institutions, including MDC-T, where the public can dial and receive audio programmes.

‘These services are classified under the Broadcasting Services Act and once anyone decides to provide such services, the network providers must follow procedures of licensing for consideration,’ he said. So how is the internet different from SMS, save that government fears the larger user base of the latter more?

Finally, as the world turns, there was a report this week in the DRC (Democratic Republic of Congo) newspaper Le Potentiel saying that sales of newspapers were being undercut by piracy (photocopying of issues) and by people using the internet to access daily news.

Shabani Keni, a vendor of the newspaper, told its reporter: ‘Le Potentiel has serious difficulties in selling their wares. This is because it is on the web. It's not bad to put a newspaper on the Internet. Globalization means it has to happen. But the output of the newspaper Le Potentiel [on the Internet] should be limited in order not to blunt the desire of readers [to buy it].’

Online business model, anyone?


* This article was originally published by Balancing Act Africa.
* Please send comments to [email protected] or comment online at Pambazuka News.

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