GOVERNMENT is becoming increasingly paranoid hence its intention to introduce new communications regulations that have been described as part of a gran
d scheme to eavesdrop on private correspondence and control the flow of information.
Analysts said this week the measures were consistent with its failed bid to establish a one-party state and growing ties with China where the Internet is strictly monitored.
The introduction of the regulations where state-owned Tel*One will have a monopoly over all foreign currency to the detriment of private cellular firms Econet Wireless and Telecel further confirms government’s desire to reap where it did not sow.
This week the High Court suspended the operation of Statutory Instrument 70/06 that sought to stop a multiple gateway system through termination rates for international traffic favourable to Tel*One pending the outcome of a constitutional appeal to be lodged by Econet and Telecel within the next two weeks.
In the court case, the Postal and Telecommunications Regulatory Authority of Zimbabwe (Potraz), Transport and Communications minister Christopher Mushohwe, and Tel*One are the first, second and third respondents, while Econet is the sole applicant.
Telecel also went to court separately on the same issue but is expected to make a joint constitutional appeal with Econet.
Analysts said this week the intention to ensure that Tel*One gets all the foreign currency falls in line with other similar projects such as the banning of 16 money transfer agencies last month by the Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe (RBZ). The RBZ excluded these institutions from earning hard currency being remitted home by Zimbabweans in the diaspora.
A telecoms expert on Monday said the predominant reason in government wanting all communications to go through one gateway was to spy on private messages.
“They are ill-advised,” he said. “They believe that if calls come through one gateway operated by Tel*One they could easily intercept them. That is the predominant reason.”
The attempt to spy on messages comes at a time when government has withdrawn the Interception of Communications Bill and replaced it with a consolidated new version that has been referred to the Parliamentary Legal Committee (PLC) chaired by Welshman Ncube.
The telecoms expert said even if the latest regulations were to come into effect, government would not have control of all the messages coming into or going out of the country as another network called “packet switched network” (PSN) or Internet protocol (IP) did not need a gateway.
The PSN is used by Internet service providers while cellular firms use what is called a circuit network.
The expert said one of the problems of routing all communications through a gateway controlled by Net*One was that the loss-making parastatal may default in paying international networks resulting in Zimbabwe being cut off from the rest of the world.
In September this year Net*One was disconnected from the international link, Intelsat, thereby affecting Internet services after failing to pay a US$710 000 debt for both Internet and voice link for the period April to end of June.
“The other reason for the regulations is that they want to protect the revenue base of Tel*One. They want to get hold of all the foreign currency,” the expert said.
In its court application that led to the suspension of Statutory Instrument 70, Econet exposed government’s defiance of court orders, particularly a 1995 Supreme Court ruling which authorised the company to route traffic through its own international gateway after breaking the Tel*One’s monopoly.
The court application also brought to the fore government’s penchant for total control and mistrust of free enterprise. Often, government has resorted to the use of “the element of surprise” to deal with those concerned. Such a choking knack for control flies in the face of indigenisation and belies government’s commitment to black empowerment.
Econet CEO Douglas Mboweni said his company was surprised to receive a letter from Potraz advising them of the coming on stream of Statutory Instrument 70 that the mobile phone operator was supposed to implement even before consultations were concluded.
Said Mboweni in response to the Potraz instruction: “Applicant is entitled to route its own traffic through its international gateway. I must point out that this was a compromise position to the original court order that granted the applicant unrestricted right to ‘move traffic within, into and from Zimbabwe’.”
He said government has over the years tried to usurp Econet’s right as guaranteed by provisions of its licence.
Mboweni said three years ago Potraz, Net*One and the police attempted to shut down Econet’s international gateway without a court order or warrant and the High Court in July 2003 offered Econet protection against threats to withdraw its licence.
“In January, 2004 the 1st and 2nd respondents promulgated Statutory Instrument 18 which sought to reintroduce the monopoly that had been struck down in December 1995 by the Supreme Court,” Mboweni added.
“This in effect amounted to an amendment of the applicant’s licence provisions without due process and without following proper licence amendment procedures.”
Political analyst Eldred Masunungure drew parallels between the regulations and the banning of 16 money transfer agencies last month by the Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe that was done without prior notice.
Announcing the ban, central bank governor Gideon Gono said: “With immediate effect, all money transfer agencies are cancelled. All local accounts for these entities should be closed.” The government used the same tactic when destroying people’s homes and informal businesses under its internationally condemned Operation Murambatsvina last year.
Masunungure said by coming up with the regulations, government was trying “to kill two birds with one stone”: reintroduce monopoly in the telecoms sector and get all the foreign currency.
“It is driven by the government’s monopolistic impulse. It is more about consolidating its monopoly on the telecoms sector, the forex dimension is secondary,” said Masunungure.
He added: “If you do not have a competitive mind, it means that those that are efficient are a threat. It is consistent with the original intention to establish a one-party state. The idea is deeply ingrained in government and Zanu PF.”