Almost seven months have passed since an online campaign ‘#WhereIsAtra’ kicked off which eventually turned into a widespread campaign. No Hashtag has been used to this extent in social media in Afghanistan in the past 10 years and no civil protest has lasted to this extent so far. The protest took shape against the poor services, high tariffs and non-transparent services of the telecommunication companies, directly addressing the Afghanistan Telecommunication Regulatory Authority and the telecommunication companies. The youths vastly protested, mainly in social media against the poor telecom services in the past seven months. The persistent spread of the protest across the country narrates the corruption and deep catastrophe which the Afghan people have been facing for the past one and half decades.
Currently, 4 major private telecommunication companies and a major governmental telecommunication company provides internet services in mobile handsets across the country which have around 22 million active subscribers. The tariffs are many times higher as compared to regional tariffs while the services regrettably poor. The telecommunication companies are deceiving the people with different methods and withdraw money from their account besides providing poor and expensive services. The majority of telecommunication companies activate the VAS offers in the SIM Cards of their customers without their consent and deduct 1 to 10 Afghanis on daily basis from their accounts. The volume of internet packages provided by telecommunication companies are not actual and the real volume of 1GB internet is not even equal to 1/4 of the same package in other countries. The SIM cards are being sold on the roadsides similar as other items and anyone can purchase a SIM Card without legal registration process.
Deceit, corruption and cruelty of the telecommunication companies in Afghanistan resulted into the launch of a historical protest by the youths of the country. We have consistently continued out protests in social media in the past 7 months and launched real campaigns by visiting mosques, painting the walls and sticking protest papers in the vehicles and shops in the city.
There have been no considerable changes in the behavior of telecommunication companies despite the Afghanistan Telecommunication Regulatory Authority announced its historical decision on 18th of February, confirming the majority of the claims of people one and half weeks after the launch of a massive protest. The quality of communications and internet services has become worse while there the deception and looting of money of people has not stopped.
The Minister of Telecommunication was dismissed and the director of Afghanistan Telecommunication Regulatory Authority was forced to resign following the launch of the protests but the telecommunication companies which have turned into powerful Mafias are so far not prepared to submit or surrender before the demands of the people.
Our meetings with the officials of the governmental institutions and telecommunication companies did not yield much positive results.
The local media outlets consistently reflected the protests in the past 7 months but no credible international outlet or organizations having responsibility to fight corruption have assisted or supported us.
#WhereIsAtra campaign is the first protest launched by the youths of Afghanistan in the past one half decades which is not following any political objectives or seeking money or project but aims to protect the money of the poor people of Afghanistan and help them to have access to high quality and cheap telecommunication and internet services.
Afghanistan, being one of the three poorest countries and is dependent on foreign aid for its survival but the country is exposed to looting of its national wealth from various methods with telecommunication services being one of them. Putting aside the unrealistic data bundles, poor and expensive telecommunication services, Afghanistan loses up to $1 billion annually due to arbitrary activation of VAS system and the money is being looted by telecommunication companies from the pockets of people. The amount is based on minimalistic calculation in which we have supposed that if a telecommunication company picks 1 Afghani a day from the account of each of its customer then the total amount equals to $1 billion in one year but the real amount could be much higher than this. A major portion of the customers lose 5 to 10 Afghanis a day from their accounts which further adds to the depth of the catastrophe. This is one of the parts of corruption which has been persistent for the past one and half decades. The data bundles which our people purchase against high prices and do not contain the exact amount of data, is also looting our money and adds to our poverty.
At a time when internet has become a vital and important tool for cultural, social and economic evolution, the people of Afghanistan are still deprived of having access to good internet despite paying hefty amounts of money. The Afghanistan Telecommunication Authority which is supposed to safeguard the rights of people and ensure the quality and transparency in telecommunication services, has itself become a partner in the disorder and widespread corruption by covering the issues of telecommunications which has resulted in losing its credibility among the people.
The continuation of this corruption and violation of law in addition to looting of the national wealth, further crushes the authority and sovereignty of the government in the minds of the people.
We will continue to our protest defying all challenges and threats to safeguard the wealth of people and find a way for high quality and reasonable services but expect the cooperation of the international organizations so that the voices of 22 million people do not remain silent.
Afghanistan will need the preservation of its national wealth to become independent from international community’s aid. This protest which has turned into a symbol of civil protest free from violence must yield result and failure of the protest will reduce the credibility of civil movements in the minds of people. Our resolve for the continuation of the protest is firm but fight against this monster will need support.
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Mirwais Arya is an entrepreneur and owner Mazadar Burger, a fast-food coffee shop and restaurant in Kabul.
Mirwais has over 10 years journalist background working for popular news channels like Tolonews, 1TV, Aryana TV and Khurshid TV. He has recently volunteered to engaged in the advocacy programs including #WhereIsAtra campaign to help the the telecom companies endusers and customers.