Tajik activists blame telecoms for unlawful outages

Aug 31, 2012
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Mobile phone users in an autonomous region in Tajikistan are upset at their cell providers for cutting off their phone services without any explanation or apology for more than a month during a period of heightened political tension. Now a group is organizing a boycott this weekend via Facebook by switching off their phones, saying the outage was an unlawful violation of human rights, according to Asia-Plus.

First, a little background.

You may have read last month that Tajikistan cut off the country’s access to several websites - including YouTube and the BBC – after the country’s security forces clashed with militants in the restive Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Region (GBAO). Communications in the region – both landline and mobile – were both cut off when the fighting started.  Authorities there blamed the outage on a stray bullet.

Somewhat conveniently, land line service was repaired in late July, almost immediately following the end of major fighting in the area.  However mobile service remained out for more than a month and only came back last week. A statement by Beeline, one of the mobile providers whose service was not available for a month, issued an apology to users but didn’t provide a reason for the outage. During the outage, several users posted angry messages regarding the service outage, including on Beeline’s Facebook page.

Another mobile company criticized for the outage, TCell, admitted the outage was in response to a government request. Actually the statement itself was released on the website of its majority stakeholder, European firm TeliaSonera, which is partially owned by both the Swedish and Finnish governments.

Swedish Radio News reported on the connection two weeks ago, citing spokespersons for Reports without Borders and Amnesty International critical of the Telecom giants agreeing to shutdown service:

Johann Bihr of Reporters Without Borders says TCell should have waited for court orders, under the international conventions that Tajikistan has signed.

The head of the Swedish branch of Amnesty International, Lise Berg, says their information confirms that TCell is acting without court orders, and says the government of Tajikistan is far from democratic. She says Tajikistan is a country where freedom of expression is very restricted, and where the regime continuously threatens, harasses, and jails journalists and others who try to criticize it.

And this is not the first time the telecom has caught flack for helping authoritarian regimes in the region to spy on their citizens or to commit other human rights abuses. The company is accused of giving authorities in Ukraine, Azerbaijan, and Belarus access to their systems.

Activists in Tajikistanhave organized a boycott via Facebook of mobile phone providers for 2 September, 40 days after the start of the fighting. Participants in the event, ”A half an hour of silence” are asked to turn their phones off for 30 minutes at a set time Sunday.

 

Here’s what the Facebook page has to say:

“Pol Chasa Molchaniya” is a kind of boycott to mobile service operators who, without any official notice, stopped service in the entire region. This precedent is a direct violation of our constitutional and human rights, as constitution of the Republic of Tajikistan states that service can be stopped only with the official decision of the supreme court.

Interestingly, the group also says:

On September 2 we will disconnect our mobile phones to express solidarity with those who lost their relatives.  This boycott aims to show that we, people of Tajikistan, demand governance to respect our constitutional rights.

We do respect the right of the government to limit or even cut mobile and Internet service in the region during ongoing military operations, however it should be done only in accordance with the legal framework and the constitution of the Republic of Tajikistan, which was not this time.

 So far almost 800 have responded to the event on the social network.

 


About the Author

Joshua Boissevain

Joshua Boissevain is a research associate and editorial assistant at Transitions Online. He's also a freelance journalist and photographer based in Prague. Find him on twitter at @joshboissevain.
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