Smoke signals: Vodafone’s censorship in Cyprus

The first time I became personally aware of some of the consequences of Cyprus’ division was when I had to book a flight to Turkey for a Cypriot member of the youth network I was working for. She informed me the price and that she had to fly through Greece. Managing a tight budget I was amazed at the cost of her flight, as it was even more expensive than getting her to Amsterdam and back. It didn’t really register though, because when I had to make the division of hotel rooms in Ankara, I put my Cypriot member with the Turkish member in one room not thinking about it for one minute. Polite as they were, they didn’t even say a word about it – only about a year later, that it had been so incredibly funny. Fortunately they still get along very well, and surely didn’t take this political and ethnic conflict personally.

On invitation of that same Cypriot member I now came to Cyprus to give a training on membership management to civil society organisations from the two sides. The training was part of a project that should stimulate the diversity and build capacity for CSOs on both sides in a bi-communal effort funded by the European Union. It was a real pleasure to give this training and the participants were genuinely actively participating and appreciated the content offered. I even got a ‘thought provoking’ remark as part of the evaluation. However the bi-communal part was a bit lost. There were participants from France, Bangladesh, UK, Cameroon and Greek Cypriots, but except for the co-organising Turkish CSO, there were no other participants from ‘the other side’.

The question why wasn’t really answered, although the location, the EU mission on the Greek side was debated and perhaps not accessible enough for Turkish Cyriot CSOs. I can’t help but feel that although people can cross the border now easily, there has been little effort to come to a permanent solution nor is there any real political will to do this. And I realised this after two standardized text messages I received and a conversation on the operation of mobile networks in Cyprus.

When you arrive to a country I always get the ‘Vodafone welcomes you to….‘and information on the phone tariffs of the particular visit. The first one I received stated: Welcome to Turkey. The second about 10 minutes later said Welcome to Cyprus. First conclusion, the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus is not officially recognised by any country but Turkey, but Vodafone has no trouble in being pragmatic about this. Second conclusion, I would be able to call on both sides with my roaming with the same phone. However for a Greek Cypriot or Turkish Cypriot this is not the case. They cannot actually access each other’s networks (and yes, also run by Vodafone!) when they cross the border, their phones simply do not work as they lose their roaming on ‘the other side’. Another consequence is the fact that they have to call each other for long distance tariffs in an island that is even smaller than the Netherlands.

A friend of mine recently moved into her brand new house. The problem is that it is so well insulated they hardly have any roaming. She posted on twitter: ‘We’re back to smoke signals’. The censorship of the mobile networks supported by Vodafone (although I’m sure they will claim they’re guided by government regulations and wish to stay politically neutral) has basically the same effect. Any permanent solution for Cyprus starts with a willingness to communicate. If this is not even possible between regular people by phone, the smoke screen will remain and Cyprus divided.

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