When many Afghans woke up on the morning of their landmark presidential election on April 5, they discovered they could no longer send or receive SMS text messages.
The Telecommunications Ministry, which gave no prior warning of the controversial move, said it had disabled all SMS services at the request of the Electoral Complaints Commission (ECC) from early morning to 4 p.m. local time, when most polling stations will close.
The text services of all the major telecommunication companies operating in Afghanistan -- including Etisalat, AWCC, and Roshan -- have all been blocked.
The ECC, however, denies making the request. In fact, ECC chief Sattar Sadat criticized the move, saying that "such actions could prevent a transparent election process and monitoring process."
It is unclear what provoked the move. And in the absence of clear facts, there has been no shortage of speculation.
Some argue that the Afghan government is attempting to prevent candidates from last-minute campaigning. The campaign teams of two front-runners, Abdullah Abdullah and Zalmai Rasul, have been accused of sending hundreds of thousands of text messages urging people to vote for them over the past two days.
If true, this would be a clear violation of election rules. Under existing legislation, all campaigning must stop 48 hours before election day. During the so-called period of silence, campaigning is strictly banned and candidates who violate the rule face fines and other penalties handed out by the ECC.
Others say the government's texting ban is a security measure to prevent militants from using them for attacks. The Taliban has often used mobile phones to detonate improvised explosive devices (IEDs), a favorite weapon of the militant group.
There is also speculation that the ban was imposed to prevent the Taliban from sending threatening messages to voters and discouraging them from going to the polls. The Taliban has vowed to disrupt the vote and kill any Afghans who participate in the election. The government has beefed up security in a bid to attract a higher turnout after only one-third of eligible voters cast their ballots in the 2009 presidential election.
Whatever the reason, the SMS ban has made the jobs of the 200,000 Afghan election observers much harder. These observers depend on texting to communicate with colleagues and report electoral irregularities. Observers have already complained of being unable to do their jobs properly because of the ban.
-- Frud Bezhan