* Mobile data costs soar after regulator resets prices
* Activists say aim is to stifle dissent
By MacDonald Dzirutwe
HARARE, Jan 12 Zimbabwe's biggest mobile
telephone company has pushed up data charges by a multiple of 25
in line with new regulations, prompting critics to complain that
President Robert Mugabe's government is trying to throttle the
use of social media.
Econet Wireless's new cheapest data package, which
came into effect on Wednesday night, will see users get 10
megabytes for $1, compared with 250 megabytes for the same
Last year, activists used the Internet to mobilise the
biggest anti-government protests in a decade, bypassing
traditional opposition parties as anger grew over Mugabe's
handling of a failing economy.
Social media group #ThisFlag, which helped organise those
protests, said of the price hike: "They didn't want us to
continue to take pictures and videos of their abuse, neglect,
incompetence and show the world."
The increase came after the Postal and Telecoms Regulatory
Authority of Zimbabwe (POTRAZ) set a base price of 2 cents per
megabyte for data services and 12 cents per minute for voice
POTRAZ said it was consulting "all relevant players". Its
director general was quoted in a state-owned newspaper as saying
Zimbabwe had higher data costs than countries like South Africa
and Tanzania because of its landlocked geography and smaller
Information Communication Technology Minister Supa
Mandiwanzira said on Twitter he is abroad on leave until Jan. 30
and "on return to work I will get to the bottom of it."
Econet Chief Executive Officer Douglas Mboweni said his
company was aware that the new charges had caused "pain" but it
was forced to comply with directives set by POTRAZ.
"Having said this, we would like to advise you that we will
continue engaging the regulator on the impact this has had on
you, our valued customers," Mboweni said in a statement. Econet
says on its website it has over 10 million subscribers in a
country with a population of 13 million.
Customers took to social media to criticise the company and
the regulator, accusing them of helping the government stifle
Lashias Ncube, a frequent Twitter commentator, said: "Two
imperatives feeding off each other, government bid to curtail
use of social media finds willing and unwitting ally in
Zimbabwean activists have used Twitter, Facebook and
WhatsApp to vent anger against Mugabe, in power since 1980, and
the ruling ZANU-PF party, which they see as detached from their
"We had advanced a million baby steps in technology and
connectivity but POTRAZ just threw us back to the stone age,"
wrote Temba Dube, who posts regularly on Twitter.
Zimbabwe's two other mobile phone companies, state-owned
NetOne and Telecel, until last year majority owned by Vimpelcom
, have yet to announce new prices.
(Reporting by MacDonald Dzirutwe; Editing by Joe Brock and Mark