By Alhagie Jobe
The Jammeh administration has shut down the country’s telecom giant, Gamtel’s international gateway system putting the whole nation incommunicado ahead of Thursday, December 1st presidential polls as there are no incoming and outgoing calls as well as internet access in the country.
Social media users – Gambians in and out og the country went to bed Wednesday with the disappointing news without any genuine reason advance ahead of voting in today’s election.
Gambians go to the polls on December 1st with incumbent President Yahya Jammeh who is widely believed to be going to loose is facing perhaps the biggest political challenge during his 22 years in power. He is been challenged by Adama Barow who is leading a revitalized and united opposition coalition and Mama Kandeh of the Gambia Democratic Congress who was a former National Assembly member of the ruling Jammeh APRC party.
The shutdown affects all the four GSM companies in the country providing internet service for mobile devices etc – Africell and QCell, which are privately owned; the state-owned Gamtel’s subsidiary, Gamcel, which provides 3G internet services; and Comium, the newest private player in the market, which provides 2G internet services.
None of the country’s GSM companies have circulated an advance message of notification of this development to their subscribers but many believed it’s an attempt by the incumbent President Yahya Jammeh to rig the election and stay in power for another five years.
The Gambia Telecommunications Company Limited, Gamtel, owns the fiber-optic cable that runs across the country and is the sole fixed-line provider. As a state-owned entity, Gamtel also controls the international gateway, allowing private telecoms to lease the gateway for data services only.
In May 2013, however, the government began the process of liberalizing international gateway services by granting international data transmission licenses to private telecom operators.Voice communications, on the other hand, remain purely state-owned and controlled as part of the government’s effort to protect Gamtel’s monopoly.
The ACE Africa Coast to Europe (ACE) submarine cable system landed in The Gambia in December 2012, connecting the country to the 14,000 kilometer fiber-optic cable that stretches from France down the west coast of Africa to South Africa. Controlled by Gamtel, the ACE cable was expected to boost bandwidth and drive new services at more affordable rates, but as of mid-2014, such improvements have yet to be realized.
Despite the recent liberalization of the international gateway, the Gambia government still exerts a significant level of control over internet access in the country. In April 2013, the regulator PURA issued a press release banning internet cafes from offering Voice over IP (VoIP).
Long known for his eccentricities, international attention has increasingly focused on the repressive nature of President Jammeh’s rule as political rights and civil liberties are severely restricted in The Gambia, with conditions for press freedom and freedom of expression particularly tenuous.
As access to information via ICTs has proliferated over the past two decades, the government has proactively applied its notably harsh media censorship tactics to the internet, beginning as early as 2006 with the blocking of two critical online news outlets. In 2014, at least 15 news and opposition websites were blocked, most of which are based abroad and operated by exiled Gambian journalists.
The government strengthened its ability to control the internet in 2013 and 2014 through both technical and legal means. In March 2014, internet access was disconnected for 48 hours, enabled by state control over the country’s telecommunications infrastructure, while the popular Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) application, Viber, was blocked a few weeks later. Internet cafe registration regulations were initiated in April 2013, requiring an onerous application process, and in September 2013, the regulator issued further guidelines that mandated specific requirements on the physical layout of cyber cafes and the signs that must be displayed.
Additionally, existing legal restrictions on freedom of expression were explicitly applied to the internet in July 2013 with the passage of amendments to the 2009 Information and Communications Act, which prescribed up to 15 years in prison, a fine of up to GMD 3 million (US$100,000), or both, for using the internet to criticize, impersonate, or spread “false news” about public officials. The law applies to Gambians both in the country and abroad.
Meanwhile, access to the internet in The Gambia has increased steadily over the past decade according to a data from the International Telecommunication Union (ITU). Fixed-broadband subscriptions are still paltry and internet infrastructure is now in existent in rural areas, resulting in a significant urban-rural unity in access.
The Gambia has one of the highest mobile phone penetrations in Africa, with an access rate of nearly 100 percent and majority of the population have access to mobile broadband with the introduction of 3G wireless internet connections via mobile devices.