Zimbabwean regulator 'blocks' bulk SMS as election nears

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Authorities in Zimbabwe have allegedly blocked an organisation, which distributes civil society and human rights information, from sending bulk SMS messages in the country.

The Kubatana Trust of Zimbabwe, which incorporates the non governmental organisation (NGO) Network Alliance Project (NNAP), makes human rights and civic education information accessible from a what it says is a “centralised, electronic source” via the likes of the internet, email and text messages.

Content of Kubatana messages include local and international news headlines, as well as discussion forums for Zimbabweans.

Amanda Atwood, who works for the Kubatana Trust, says the number of messages her organisation sends via bulk SMS equates that of "Zimbabwe's total newspaper circulation."

According to the Zimbabwe All Media and Products Survey, 63% of urban Zimbabweans and 33% of rural Zimbabweans read newspapers. Zimbabwe’s population amounts to just over 12 million people according to the World Bank.

Kubatana uses an international gateway system to send bulk text messages in the country because Atwood says it is cheaper than using a local telco. Atwood adds that using an international gateway also helps to prevent its messages from being potentially censored by Zimbabwean government officials.

But last week Wednesday, those working for Kubatana noticed that their organisation’s bulk text messages were failing to be successfully sent, just days before Zimbabweans go to the polls to vote on July 31.

"We first noticed it on Wednesday when we couldn't send out messages that we were trying to send," Atwood tells ITWeb Africa.

"At first we thought it was just some problem with the carrier or the operator or something. And by the Thursday I had conversations with somebody who works at the Zimbabwe mobile phone carrier who basically said: 'about two days ago we got a directive from Potraz (Postal and Telecommunications Regulatory Authority of Zimbabwe) ... who advised us to block this type of international bulk gateway messaging'."

"This is the first time this has happened to us," Atwood further says.

Atwood tells ITWeb Africa that Zimbabwean mobile operator Econet Wireless told her about the blocking of the messages.

Econet Wireless is Zimbabwe's largest mobile operator with over 8 million subscribers.

At the time of writing, Potraz has not responded to questions from ITWeb Africa about the alleged bulk SMS blocking.

Atwood, though, says Kubatana is not involved in 'politicking' or 'partisan' messaging as she says " our idea is to try and keep Zimbabwe informed and inspired, recognising that there's such a restriction on the media access here."

The likes of global media body ‘Reporters without Borders’ is critical of Zimbabwe’s government for allegedly arresting and harassing journalists.

In one example, Reporters without Borders says the editor of the Zimbabwe Independent weekly Owen Gagare, one of his reporters and the newspaper’s secretary were arrested on 7 May this year for publishing a story that said Morgan Tsvangirai, the leader of Zimbabwe’s opposition party the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), had met secretly with senior military officers ahead of the coming elections.

Global democratic group Freedom House also says that despite constitutional provisions for freedom of expression in Zimbabwe, “a draconian legal framework continues to inhibit the activities of journalists and media outlets.”

The 2002 Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act (AIPPA), for instance, requires all journalists and media companies in Zimbabwe to register and gives the information minister sweeping powers to decide which publications can operate legally and who is able to work as a journalist.

Unlicensed journalists can even face criminal charges and a sentence of up to two years in prison, says Freedom House.

“As a result of Zimbabwe’s repressive legislation, criminal charges are often brought against journalists just for doing their job. This has been seen yet again in recent cases of arrests and harassment,” says Reporters without Borders.

Meanwhile, Zimbabwe is readying to go to the polls on Wednesday in what could be a tight contest between Zanu-PF and the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) to see who wins the country’s presidential, parliamentary and council votes.

Previous elections in the country have seen high levels of violence amid allegations from the likes of the MDC that the ruling Zanu-PF has engaged in vote-rigging and intimidation.

Zanu-PF leader and president of Zimbabwe, Robert Mugabe, was elected into power in 1980 and has been in power since.