Viber blocked in Gambia: Violation of the Right of the Public To Use Telecommunications Services

Viber Media Inc., a voice over internet protocol (VOIP) service provider for free calls around the world has described as “unfortunate”, the fact that its services are no longer in use in the West African state of The Gambia.

By Sanna Camara, correspondent in Banjul

Banjul, June 2nd 2014 - Viber says it has been brought to their attention that “features of the Viber application have been blocked by The Gambia.” It said they have received reports and complains from “many users that Viber is blocked in Gambia”, and that their investigations have confirmed this.

A little over two months ago, the Gambia government denied blocking the Viber services in the country. The company however confirmed that its services have indeed been blocked in The Gambia, maintaining that governments and internet service providers reserve the right to do this.

In March 2014, the permanent secretary, Ministry of Information and Communication Infrastructure, Mr. Lamin Camara, had denied that the Viber services have been blocked in the country. Camara blamed the call facility’s problems in the country on “hiccups or technical faults with networks.”

“Some service providers have erratic networks which are also affecting the quality of calls their subscribers can make through Viber. Issues like traffic congestion affect the quality of their calls – be it Viber or others – and they want to blame it on government. I can tell you that there is nothing on the side of the government to block the service,” said Mr. Camara.

In clarifying this in the same month, the company which was founded and co-owned by four Israeli partners explained: 

"It seems that the features of the Viber application have been blocked by their service providers or by their country. We will continue to investigate the issue and inform you of any updates…. Note that all countries and service providers maintain the right to allow or block network connections.”

Internet cafes, dating sites, seeking to commercialise services

The idea to block VOIP services such as Viber came in April 2013, when the country’s Public Utilities Regulatory Authority (PURA) issued a press release seeking to ban Skype and Viber, “with intent to target Internet cafes and dating sites seeking to commercialise such services.”

Sources revealed that the move came in reaction to a newspaper advertisement a week earlier allegedly seeking “to commercialise social dating and voice over calls for chargeable fees. The government was allegedly concerned with the café’s advert in local newspapers, which they argued have “revenue implications for GSM companies.”

A drama for ordinary Gambian citizens

Many citizens were describing it as a drama that is “outrageous”, “unacceptable”.

Kawsu Barrow, a resident of Kotu, Northern Gambia, said the move was “totally unacceptable… that PURA is coming up with this strange move, goes against the interest of ordinary Gambians. Personally, I want to make calls but I do not have the means. So I turn to services such as Skype and Viber.
Mr. Barrow urged the government to reverse their decision because “it is against the interest of ordinary people”.

A Guinean shopkeeper at Bakoteh Layout, who claims he was saving to buy a laptop to send to his family in Guinea for Skype communication soon, said he couldn’t believe it at first. “It costs me money to buy credit for my phone each time I make a call to my family in Guinea. I connect better with my family through Skype or Viber, since I can see everyone on video call aside from hearing their voices. In fact, Skype calls are usually better than phone calls.”

“The decision [to block Skype or Viber] is anti-competition and out of step,” said Baboucarr Ceesay, a civil society activist.
Ceesay said he wonders why the utilities regulatory authority hasn’t organised a consumer parliament to know the views of consumers on the action before taking such a decision. “It is neither logical, nor reasonable to base their decision on certain telecommunication or GSM companies,” he added.

Internet Sans Frontières is worried by the disproportion of the decision to block VOIP services in Gambia, and calls the Gambian government, which as a Member State is bound by the provisions of the Constitution of the International Telecommunications Unions (ITU), to take all measures to protect Gambian citizens to Use International Telecommunication Services such as Viber (article 33 of the Constitution: "Member States recognize the right of the public to correspond by means of the international service of public correspondence.").

Lundi 2 Juin 2014

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