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MTN sued for Internet shutdown in Eswatini

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MTN is being taken to court in Eswatini for blocking Internet services to its users in the country during a week of anti-monarchy protests.

Earlier last week, MTN would not admit outright to blocking services in the country and told Connecting Africa that it was "experiencing disruption to services and connectivity."

However, in a statement on Friday, the group admitted that MTN Eswatini and other operators had received a directive from the Eswatini Communications Commission on June 29, 2021, to suspend access to social media and online platforms until further notice.

"After carefully assessing the directive, and in line with its licence conditions and the Group's digital human rights due diligence framework, MTN Eswatini implemented the directive," the South African-headquartered operator said.

Eswatini's King Mswati III is Africa's last absolute monarch, and protests have been raging in the small Southern African nation for a week now, with citizens calling for democracy and the right to select their own leaders.

The country's Internet had been down since last Tuesday and the communications blackout has coincided with a nationwide curfew from 6 p.m. to 5 a.m., and the closure of schools.

Court battle

Now MTN Eswatini is being cited as one of several respondents in an urgent court application which is seeking the immediate restoration of Internet services in the country.

South Africa's News24 reported that the application was brought by the Institute for Democracy and Leadership (Ideal), along with various youth organizations, and that the application named MTN and also state-owned Eswatini Mobile and Eswatini Telecommunications Corporation.

TechCentral reported that the case was heard by the high court on Eswatini on Friday and the respondents were granted leave to file papers on Tuesday, July 6.

"MTN Eswatini continues to engage with relevant stakeholders to limit the duration of the service disruption and is reviewing the details of the court application in consultation with its advisers," MTN said in a statement to the media.

"MTN Group is committed to respecting human rights and endeavours to protect the rights of all people who use our services in the jurisdictions in which we operate in accordance with globally defined standards.

"Our approach to digital human rights is underpinned by a sound policy and due diligence framework and is managed through multi-disciplinary teams across our markets," it said.

MTN is run through a joint venture in Eswatini with MTN Group owning a 30% stake.

At the end of 2020, MTN was the country's biggest mobile operator with 990,000 subscribers, while Eswatini Mobile had about 160,700 users.

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*Top image source: warrenski on Flickr, CC 2.0

— Paula Gilbert, Editor, Connecting Africa

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