The High Court of Zimbabwe has banned the country’s largest telecom provider, Econet from sending daily SMS updates on COVID-19 related infections and deaths.
The ban followed a lawsuit filed on February 16 by Sikhumbuzo Moyo, a Harare-based lawyer. Moyo had accused Econet of sending unwelcome daily COVID-19 alerts on mortality rates which were depressing and traumatising for him as he had just lost his father to the pandemic.
“Despite my attempt to avoid mental torment, Econet slides in my messages and makes sure every day is a day of reflection on the death and possible deaths around the subject,” he said.
An excerpt from the final terms of the court order shows that Moyo had asked Econet to stop sending the COVID-19 text messages but the mobile network operator did not accede to his request.
The actions of the respondent failing to stop sending unwelcome messages to the applicant after demand violates applicant’s constitutional right of free association.
“It is declared that respondent’s actions; in so far as continued communication was made to the applicant of traumatizing information, violated Section 53 and Section 57 of the Constitution of Zimbabwe Amendment No. 20 of 2013,” the statement further read.
Econet’s actions were deemed illegal, wrongful and unconstitutional by the high court’s Judge David Mangota.
Pursuant to his judgment, the court granted Moyo interim relief and ordered Econet to suspend the transmission of all COVID-19 related messages to his mobile number within 12 hours. The telco has been given 10 days to challenge the provisional order
It is perhaps incredible that one out of up to 13 million Econet subscribers has forced a court order that could see the telco pay compensatory damages for something as simple and perceivably harmless as a text message.
Information or Harassment?
When does information become harassment? In the wake of surging COVID-19 cases in Zimbabwe, Econet’s SMS alerts were predictably aimed at keeping subscribers informed about what was going on at the front lines of the pandemic and spread awareness on necessary preventive measures.
Zimbabwe has recorded over 35,000 coronavirus cases and more than 1,400 related deaths. The country is currently observing an extended lockdown.
But as can be seen from Moyo’s case, such unsolicited information could easily be considered harassment depending on the receiver’s preference. For Moyo, the texts were not helpful based on his peculiar situation and the fact that Econet refused to stop “pestering” him with the texts after he had requested this infringed his constitutional right.
The need to avoid such a scenario perhaps explains why regulators such as the Nigerian Communications Commission (NCC) introduced the Do-Not-Disturb service for telecom operators including MTN and Airtel. The DND allows customers to completely opt out of receiving promotional messages for third party services.
However, the NCC’s temporary suspension of the DND in 2019 to facilitate voter education via MNOs bears some similarities to Econet’s dissemination of COVID-19 information. But unlike the NCC which is a regulator, Econet is only a mobile network operator in Zimbabwe and there is no DND-like service available to its subscribers in any case.
Going forward, the operator may consider integrating such a service which will let users decide if they want to receive a particular set of messages or not. This would save the telco avoidable court disputes.
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