The Gambia has a relatively high internet penetration rate compared to other countries in the sub region. With a population of 1.8 million people (2014), it has a penetration rate of about 16 percent. This means that the number of people with access to internet in the country is by far more than the population of its capital city Banjul, which has a population of about 40,000 inhabitants (2014). The Gambia’s telecoms sector is dominated by four mobile networks with four other Internet Service Providers (ISPs). The national telecoms giant, Gamtel is the lone fixed line provider and competes in the mobile sector through its subsidiary Gamcel against Africell and Comium, both with Lebanese backing, and QCell.
In March 2014, the government reportedly blocked the popular social media app Viber following weeks of speculation. The government however denied any involvement and blamed service providers for what it attributed to a possible “technical problem”.
Lamin Camara, Deputy Permanent Secretary for the Ministry of Information Technology commented on the issue for online news site Gambia Affairs:
[If] someone can just develop software for free and use it, if you take these operators out of business you would no longer be able to use that free service anymore because someone is investing in a platform that is enabling you to use that service. I think people need to see the bigger picture about it. I am not here to support whatever might have happened but in as much as we felt it is not in our best interests, we need to be very analytical about the whole situation.
The top government official stated that telecommunications service providers (“operators”) had instituted a block, but fell short of mentioning specific providers. He continued:
The blockade of Viber has nothing to do with Public Utility Regulatory Authority (PURA), the blockage is at operators’ level. I am not pointing fingers at any operator. I know there are other services that Viber has affected and it is not good for them. We are working together to see how we can come to a better solution that would be acceptable to all parties.”
Recently, users have indicated that Viber services are now available in the Gambia. It is not clear why and when exactly the services were unblocked. “I just saw my Viber services back,” a user said, noting that it maybe because of the month of Ramadhan.
The month of Ramadhan is considered a sacred month in Islam and over 90 percent of The Gambia’s population is Muslim.
In April 2013, the Public Utilities Regulatory Authority announced the banning of Viber, dating sites, and VoIP services such as Skype in public cafes, deeming them “illegal”. But this information was quickly contradicted by the Ministry of Information and Communication Infrastructure, which stated that these services had not been banned by government.
The growing popularity of the internet, especially through mobile internet services leading to increase in voice over internet protocol (VOIP) usage has warranted reaction from the government. The authoritarian government seems to believe the use of such services is helping online dissident Gambian media in the diaspora to deliver information to the public through whistle blowers.
Even though it is not clear exactly why the authorities unblocked Viber there are reports that it based on economic interests. The service providers are reportedly unhappy with purportedly ‘huge’ revenue loss due to the blockade. Whatever, the reason(s) maybe, it is evident that economic pressure has taken over political pressure, which was seen as the reason for the initial blockade.