DAKAR— The Gambian government has backed away from its announcement last week that the use of free Internet calling services, such as Skype, is prohibited in cyber cafes. Officials are now saying the ban only applies to the commercial use of such services, but many Gambians say they are still not happy.
A computer technician at a deserted cyber café in Gambia’s main business city, Serekunda, said the government’s recent ban on national and international online calling services, such as Viber and Skype, is costing him customers.
Musa Keita says that the move is very harsh, given the number of people who use cyber cafes to make cheap calls to their loved ones abroad. Many people come to cyber cafes for these services, he said. If cyber cafes are now prohibited from providing these services, it is like telling the owners to close to up their businesses and go out and beg, he said.
The Gambia’s Public Utilities Regulatory Authority said the ban was necessary because these calling services were “depriving the country of much-needed revenue … required for the development of The Gambia.”
The state-run telecommunications company, Gamtel, currently offers national and international calling services. But many residents say that using Skype and other online calling services at cyber cafes is the cheapest way to stay in touch.
Fatou Drammeh, a Senegalese woman currently living in The Gambia, said she did not have Internet at home and couldn’t afford to make calls using a landline or mobile phone.
She said that this ban is going to affect many people. Phone calls are very expensive in this country and many people rely on the cyber café to call their family and friends, she said. She says that she goes to the cyber café every Saturday to call her mother and sisters in Dakar. She does not have money to buy phone cards, she said.
The ban isn’t only affecting those who want to call home.
Many people are also concerned that the ban will affect freedom of the press in The Gambia. Residents say they often use VoIP services, or Voice over Internet Protocols, to call into radio shows, such as Freedom Radio and Hello Gambia, which have a reputation for allowing listeners to be critical of the regime of President Yaya Jammeh.
"In my own opinion, the main objective for this ban on Voice over Internet Protocols is to suppress the voice of Gambians," said Senegalese human rights activist Abdoulaye Diakhate who recently attended a meeting with the African Commission on Human and People’s Right in The Gambia's capital, Banjul.
"I think Gambians should be allowed to voice their concerns and they can only do this through these internet facilities at the cheaper price," he added.
Following public outcry over last week’s announcement of the ban, the Director General of PURA, Abdoulie Jobe, clarified his office’s statement, saying that the ban was not meant to prohibit Gambians from using such services, but rather to stop cyber cafes from commercializing them.
The Gambia’s Ministry of Information and Communication Infrastructure say they are encouraging Gambians to continue using Skype - just on personal devices.
Alpha Jallow in The Gambia contributed to this report