Low data charges, critical for empowering access to basic human rights

Wellington Zimbowa
Media and Information in Southern Africa (MISA) Zimbabwe continues lobbying Government over the current mobile operators’ data prices, highlighting that ‘its(data) affordability is critical in ensuring the constitutional right of access to information vis-à-vis, how the Covid-19 public health emergency has changed the social, education and business landscape with the internet being the only way out’.
Following the announcement of a national lockdown, which started on March 30, 2020, the press freedom body initiated a #DataMustFall campaign to put pressure on mobile phone operators that had hiked their data charges, with the online campaign gaining the support of fellow civic organisation, such as, Media Alliance Zimbabwe and Crisis Coalition Zimbabwe.
Government in line with WHO and regional health recommendations, introduced the national lockdown in an effort to contain the spread of the disease.
“Internet access is key in keeping citizens informed on developments pertaining to the Covid-19 pandemic and measures being put in place to combat the virus.
“It is also a fundamental human right central to the exercise of free expression and access to information that empowers citizens to make informed choices and decisions on socio-economic and political matters that affect their daily lives,” said MISA in statement.
“As such, internet affordability becomes an urgent issue that the government, service providers and other critical stakeholders, should address to give effect to the constitutional provision that provides for the right to access to information.
“The World Wide Web Foundation has also noted that the Web is both a lifeline and a critical force in helping to curb the spread of the virus, providing vital public health information and helping us live virtually when meeting physically threatens human lives.”

The #DataMustFallZimMISA runs under the auspices of the MAZ initiated #DataMustFall campaign with a signed petition calling for government regulatory body, the Postal and Telecommunications Regulatory Authority of Zimbabwe (POTRAZ) and mobile, and internet operators to reduce data charges.
“Internet access is not a luxury for the rich, but a fundamental human right critical in the fight against Covi-19. It is therefore worrying that despite MISA Zimbabwe’s calls for the reduction of data prices, contrary developments have been noted.”
Zimbabwe’s largest mobile operator, founded by philanthropist and renowned businessman Strive Masiyiwa had its charges shoot up by 225 percent on May 5.
Subsequently, 25 Gigabytes of mobile data increased from $400 to $1300, while government owned NetOne, which is the second largest mobile operator by subscriber base, increased data charges by between 12 and 100 %, as announced on May 6.
Prior to the press release, MISA spokesperson Thabani Moyo had called on authorities to utilise the Universal Services Fund (USF) to subsidise data in a telephone interview with The Business Connect
USF are funds remunerated to POTRAZ by the country’s three mobile operators – Econet, Telecel and NetOne.
Moyo acknowledged that data was imported and us such hard currency was needed.
However, Midlands State University academic Dr. Theophelus Tsokota defended the data hiking by mobile operators, arguing that they are in business and businesses are there to make money.
He said the major source of business for mobile operators is the voice platform (voice calls), which has been generally low and they cannot miss an opportunity presented by Covid-19 of high internet demand, as many people are caged home, due to the national lockdown.
The high data charges have also had an impact on the educational sector, drawing the ire of stakeholders.
Female Students Network Trust (FSNT), a girl-child rights pressure group focusing on higher learning lamented that exorbitant data charges and the country’s poor ICT infrastructure has made education, a privilege for the elite, and not a right as stipulated in the country’s constitution.
“Since the introduction of the national lockdown, students were forced to disperse, henceforth, they are now scattered around the country, as they have relocated back to their respective communities. Some have relocated to deepest remote areas where they are disconnected from key learning facilities and services that enable them to continue with their education. Lectures were deemed to continue using online and Google classroom platforms, which has become a far-fetched facility to the general populace. FSNT feels that education has become a ‘privilege’ not a ‘right’, as stipulated in the Constitution of Zimbabwe of 2013, Section 75. The elite seem to benefit more on education during this period of unprecedented Covid-19 epidemic, where they can afford to use online facilities, unlike the under-privileged. Most students are reportedly to have succumbed to poverty, as they were immediately disengaged from informal trading, which was one of their largest sources of livelihoods,” it said in statement.

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