Political activists in South Sudan say mobile phone carrier Zain South Sudan illegally disrupted their telephone service, crippling their communications ahead of a planned anti-government protest.
People’s Coalition on Civil Action Coalition member Rajab Muhandis said that when activists tried to access their WhatsApp messages on August 29 — the eve of the planned protest in Juba — they received messages saying their numbers were registered to other phones.
Zain South Sudan denies the accusation of duplicating sim cards.
But activists say the move made it impossible for them to communicate with one another.
“Zain duplicated the sim cards of members of the coalition and those numbers were then activated on telephones and they were used,” Muhandis told VOA’s South Sudan in Focus.
“Since then, those numbers are active and if you communicate to these lines, the messages go through, indicating they are being used in telephones and there is no other company that could duplicate these numbers except Zain,” Muhandis said.
The protest fizzled amid what activists say was an intentional internet outage and warnings from security officials of serious consequences against organizers if the demonstration happened.
Activists say the phone company was part of a government-led effort to crack down on them and to deter the planned protests.
Coalition member Joseph Akol Makeer said he realized his sim card was compromised when he received a text saying his phone had been registered to a different device.
“What Zain company has done is unethical, unprofessional, criminal and endangers people’s lives,” he said. “Those who were in that contact were compromised and already the state has contacted some of them because they were sending me messages which were going to the state.”
When Makeer tried calling his own number from a different phone, he said the call went through but not to his phone.
The activists said they are planning legal action against Zain South Sudan.
Wilson Ladu, technical director for Zain South Sudan, said the company does not tap users’ communications.
“Our subscribers, their lines are protected, in fact we at Zain, we don’t tap,” Ladu told South Sudan in Focus. “We don’t have that right to tap and technically you cannot have the same number duplicated because it has the address. You cannot have two addresses.”
The company has not received a complaint from activists, Ladu said.
Juba residents told Reuters that the night before the planned protests that mobile data was unavailable on the network of South African mobile operator MTN Group, and the following day it was also halted on the Zain Group.
Alp Toker, director of NetBlocks, a London-based group that monitors internet disruptions, said it detected “significant disruption to internet service in South Sudan beginning Sunday evening, including to leading cellular networks.”