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Econet threatened with closure

ECONET Wireless, the country’s largest mobile phone operator, faces a closure threat for allegedly allowing the Movement for Democratic Change to campaign on its network through a toll free interactive service launched on Tuesday.

A ghost writer, Nathaniel Manheru, widely believed to be President Robert Mugabe’s spokesperson, George Charamba, last week threatened to cancel the company’s operating licence. Manheru reflects the thinking of Zanu-PF on various policies in the Government of National Unity (GNU).

“The next polls will be fought on the waves, which is why Econet, and its card-carrying owner, Strive Masiyiwa, are so critical to the MDC-T,” said Manheru in a column on Saturday. “We wait for a new propaganda service, which MDC-T seeks to unveil on June 14, using Masiyiwa’s network, through a toll-free facility. Thank God cellular licenses are up for renewal and government has to deal with all manner of mischief.”

Telecommunications companies are licensed by the Postal and Telecommunications Regulatory Authority (Potraz), a creation of an Act of Parliament.

This is not the first time that Econet has been threatened for its alleged involvement in politics but the mobile phone operator denies it will offer a toll free facility where a subscriber gets daily news roundups, updates on MDC’s rallies, the party’s position on the constitution making process and a message from the party president Morgan Tsvangirai.

“Econet Wireless, as a matter of policy, does not provide any assistance at all to political organisations, and this includes the provision of toll-free numbers to any political group,” said Rangarirai Mberi, the telecommunications company’s spokesperson. “We therefore wish to state categorically that there is no agreement whatsoever with any political party. Any illegal use of Econet lines will result in those lines being immediately disconnected.”

The MDC has dubbed the new platform The Voice of Real Change and said it would herald a new era in communication “at a time when the so-called public broadcaster, Zimbabwe Broadcasting Corporation, has shamefully become a conveyor of Zanu-PF propaganda”.

Under the new platform, a subscriber would call a mobile number on Econet’s 0916 platform and there would be no connection. However, the callback facility would enable the radio system to call the subscriber and choose what options they prefer from various menu items.

Econet has been accused of supporting the then opposition MDC and the threat to have its
licence revoked is always brought up each time the accusations are raised. Late last year, Econet
came under fire after short message service (SMS) were sent to various delegates at the Zanu-PF congress held in Harare. It was only later discovered that the SMS were sent from a platform outside the country.

Econet has consistently denied such allegations.

Potraz, the only body that can revoke the licence, could not comment on the issue as the director general Charles Sibanda was said to be out of the country attending a workshop. Questions sent to his deputy, Alfred Marisa, had not been responded to by the time of going to press.


Leonard Makombe

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