Mobile network operators in Eswatini have been instructed to switch off access to social media sites, as regional pressure ratchets up on King Mswati III to speedily deal with violent protests over his rule.

Property and infrastructure is also being destroyed, even after South African president Cyril Ramaphosa dispatched special envoys on behalf of the regional Southern African Development Community (SADC) block to meet Mswati to help chart a way out of the crisis.

Now, Mswati’s administration has ordered telecommunication companies, including a local subsidiary of regional operator MTN, to suspend access to Facebook and Facebook Messenger until further notice.

“Access to Facebook and Facebook Messenger has been suspended,” said MTN in a statement. MTN Eswatini also informed its subscribers via text message that it regretted “the inconvenience caused” after it “implemented” a directive to suspend the social networking platform.

The mobile operator said it was “engaging with the relevant stakeholders to minimise the impact and duration of the service disruption”, while telecoms industry sources said lawyers were challenging the directive in court.

Eswatini Mobile is the other operator in the small African monarchy.

The unrest in Swaziland and destruction of property and infrastructure has been splashed on social media. Eswatini also shut down the internet in July when protests flared up.

Amnesty International has called on Eswatini to drop charges against parliamentarians jailed for participating in earlier protests in the country.

Phumzile Van Damme, a board member for Anti-Disinformation South Africa, wrote on Twitter that “MTN violates its own principles with this decision” to comply with the directive from Eswatini government.

MTN says on its website that it “endeavours to protect the rights of all people using our services in the respective jurisdictions” in which it operates. However, sources in the telecoms sector in the SADC region said operators have to comply with “regulatory directives or they risk their licences”.

“They [MTN] have to comply first and then challenge in court and this is a route they will follow, especially here in Africa where regulatory directives come with consequences if you don’t comply,” said a regional telecoms industry executive.

Verisk Maplecroft Africa analyst Aleix Montana says “tracking social media activity is becoming an increasingly common technique for law enforcement agencies” across Africa.

“Considering the ever-growing importance of social media and the internet as means to mobilise protest movements, some African governments have introduced draconian legislation aimed at restricting online activities.”

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