Prosecutors in Tajikistan are investigating the circumstances around the recent ban on money-saving phone apps imposed by the nation’s telecommunications regulator.
The unusual sight of one branch of government probing another raises fresh questions about possible infighting in a regime almost entirely bereft of a real opposition.
On December 18, the Communications Services Agency ordered all telecommunications companies to suspend access to next-generation network, or NGN, services. The technology enabled people to call relatives from abroad at highly advantageous rates, but officials have claimed it posed risks to national security.
It has been increasingly rumored that the government also intends to try and force telecommunications operators to also suspend access to messenger apps such as WhatsApp, Telegram, although industry experts insist this would be almost impossible to implement in practice.
The ban on NGN technology has provoked an unusually intense wave of grumbling among a population inured to unpopular government decisions. Some have addressed President Emomali Rahmon with letters appealing for the services, which were provided by virtually all local telecommunications companies, to be restored.
Sources at two mobile telecommunications companies told EurasiaNet.org that officials from the General Prosecutor’s Office visited their headquarters on January 2 with requests to clarify why they had suspended NGN services. The demand for clarification is highly peculiar since it is the government itself that demanded the suspension.
In the face of low-key but mounting anger, the authorities may be looking for a way to back down without eating their own words. Indeed, the sources at telecommunications companies have been informed that they may continue to offer services modeled along the lines of NGN technology as long as they call it something different.
TCell mobile phone company has begun providing a service called Chi Gap, their rivals Vavilon have MobiGap, and Intercom internet service provider has a program called Gapnest.
But telecommunications companies appear uncertain how to react to the General Prosecutor’s Office sniffing about. Heaping blame on the Communications Services Agency is likely inadvisable, given that it is run by a highly influential and mercurial relative by marriage of President Rahmon.
“We do not believe Beg [Sabur] could have come to this decision on banning messaging apps without approval from the national leadership. But why the General Prosecutor’s Office has taken it upon itself to investigate the president’s co-father-in-law is also a mystery to us,” one source at a telecommunications agency told EurasiaNet.org on condition of anonymity.
In a related development, local media last week reproduced a letter from the head of the tax committee to President Ramon arguing that the government needed to find fresh sources of revenue.
Nusratullo Davlatzoda suggested that the ban on NGN technology was necessary since they were undermining the viability of traditional phone services and thereby depriving the state of valuable tax revenue. Davlatzoda went further and argued that Tajikistan needed to slap local sales taxes on providers of multinational online services such as Google, Apple, Microsoft, Facebook and eBay, among others. Quite how that would actually work, however, is not clear.