- Amid mounting fears of phone surveillance by state security agents, Botswana Telecommunications Authority (BTA) remains adamant with going ahead with the registration of all prepaid mobile phone sim-cards on 15 September 2008.
After the 17-month long exercise, which wraps up on 31 December 2009, BTA will be mandated to disconnect all unregistered lines.
The sim-card registration has already raised eyebrows within Botswana's media fraternity who feared the new measure will give security agents to put journalists on surveillance.
But the BTA Chief Executive Officer, Thari Pheko, told a news conference on Wednesday that the sim-card registration, which is in tandem with international best practices, has been intended purposely to track down criminals bent on using cellphones to commit crimes. The process will provide a greater database of market information of mobile phones technology in the Southern African country thus ending dispute around the market leader, Pheko said.
Pheko said it will also help combat cellphone theft because it will be easier to trace the sim-card and the phone.
"This will help us better enforce licence conditions for the Public Telecommunication Operators," he said, adding that the registration is a license requirement for the three Public Telecommunications Operators - Mascom, Orange and Be Mobile [a subsidiary of Botswana Telecommunications Corporation].
Botswana journalists have not been convinced by the telecoms chief's comments that the new measure "will not infringe on citizens' liberties." Most of them feared that their country's new President who used his first day in office to paint the media as a "troublemaker," will hide behind the regulation to hang critical journalists with the help of intelligence agents.
One fear-ridden journalist even vented his disgust on the issue at the news conference by asking whether the regulation forms part of the unfriendly media government's plans to keep tabs on people, particularly, its perceived enemies.
The Director of the regional media rights watchdog, the Media Institute of Southern Africa, was not also in favour of the sim-registration. Thapelo Ndlovu said this will make it easy for security agents to target people, particularly media sources, to satisfy the interests - personal and political - of the political powers. Ndlovu doubted the "sincerity" and "validity" of Pheko's reasons, especially under an administration that does not hesitate to punish journalists for citical reporting on sate issues.
This development comes at a time when We also know that a number of organisations including unions have often complained of being subjected to surveillance by the security agents and seen under that context, one could say the system could be open to abuse," he said. He expressed hope that the initiative will be used for its intended purposes.
Some journalists backed the regulation, arguing that it will do-away with abnormalities such as buying of sim-cards for a specific purpose only to be abandoned later.
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