Zambian telecommunications company Airtel may be facing unintended consequences for allegedly having blocked access to popular citizen news website the Zambian Watchdog. For over a week, many people in the country have been unable to access the site.
Maiko Zulu, one of the nation’s popular musicians and a human rights advocate, wrote a letter to the Watchdog saying that he was dumping Airtel for blocking the citizen news website and would switch to rival telco MTN, where the website was still accessible.
Zulu, whose portfolio of songs includes Mad President and Gun Culture, wrote:
As a regular reader of ZWD online publication, I wish to register my concern over continued difficulties I and many other Zambians are experiencing in accessing ZWD [Zambian Watchdog] via the Airtel network. It is now certain, as alleged, that there is a deliberate plot to deny readers access to the site.
As a defender of press freedom and freedom of expression, it is my duty to raise concern over such a development […] As insignificant and negligible as it may seem, I personally have resorted to putting away my [Airtel] sim card and will for now use only MTN for cellular communication.
In response to Zulu’s letter, the Editor wrote in a footnote:
We thank you Mr Zulu. We have no conclusive evidence that Airtel is colluding with the PF regime to block the Watchdog from inside Zambia. But we do know that the blocking is taking place on Airtel and Zamtel and other Internet Service Providers in Zambia. We are getting to the bottom of this and very soon we shall publish the whole truth…
The footnote further explained that the site has moved from its original domain, www.zambianwatchdog.com, to a secure domain, https://zambianwatchdog.com. While its original domain remains blocked on Airtel, Zamtel and other networks, the Watchdog reports that its new domain is not. “We do realise that many people in Zambia still do not know this change,” the letter said. “That is why we endorse Mr Zulu’s move of dumping Airtel and migrating to MTN.”
Many readers agreed with Zulu, including Kameya Robert Manjomba, who wrote [comments on the Zambian Watchdog do not have unique links]:
As ZCTU [Zambia Congress of Trade Unions] Provincial Cordinator for NWP, I wish to express my concern over the reported blocking of the ZWD. I love the site though I do not support the insults. I want to put it across to Airtel that I will cease to be their subscriber if I establish that they want to fight media freedom in Zambia. My…active airtel line is [number withheld] for your verification. I will switch to MTN soon after that together with many other friends.
One reader who calls himself the Czar was happy with the service, saying:
I am on Airtel and I don’t intend to change because I haven’t [had] such problems! Everyone has a right to choose which network carrier to subscribe to.
Following Zulu’s letter, the Watchdog published a letter from an anonymous contributor alleging that government intelligence officers were sent to the MTN offices to ensure that the Watchdog was blocked there:
Today (Wednesday) after you published MAIKO ZULU’s endorsement of MTN, Dictator Michael Sata was very angry. He dispatched OP [Office of the President, another name for the Intelligence Service] to MTN to make sure Zambian Watchdog is blocked even on MTN at all costs.
OP went in full force intimidating the MTN management and issuing all sorts of threats. They made the management sign a confidentiality document and made them to swear never to disclose their operations.
They are still at MTN trying to block the internet service as I’m writing this article right now. However, they are still failing because the MTN system is more sophisticated for the OP and the Chinese they are using.
However, a response from Airtel left many with more questions than the answers:
Airtel wishes to advise its customers and the public at large that every Airtel customer has the opportunity and ability to access websites of their choice and as regards accessing the Zambian Watchdog, customers can access the website by using https instead of http.
The letter, signed by the Corporate Services & Government Relations head Chabuka J. Kawesha, further stated:
Kindly note that Airtel prides itself in being a strong corporate citizen and has committed to full compliance with regulatory guidelines. Therefore it would be contrary to company policy and the regulatory guidelines of the Republic of Zambia to block our Airtel customers from accessing any wide and varied products and services. In this competitive industry it would not bode well to engage in such discriminatory conduct.
Readers’ reactions mostly condemned the company’s statement but some, like Musoke, had a different view:
Any right thinking Zambian would not miss WD [Watchdog] and its devious, malicious and speculative reporting if it was taken out or just imploded on its own….
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