Traveling to the Eurovision Song Contest in Baku this month? You might think twice before picking up an Azercell SIM card for your mobile phone, even though the company is one of the event's main sponsors.
An investigation by the Swedish public broadcaster, Sveriges Television (SVT), last month alleges that TeliaSonera, the Swedish-Finnish telecommunications giant, is helping authoritarian regimes in the former Soviet Union spy on their own citizens, making the company complicit in human rights abuses.
TeliaSonera has given dictatorships like Azerbaijan, Belarus and Uzbekistan – which rank among the world's worst human rights abusers – access to its systems in exchange for lucrative contracts, says the hour-long report, which aired on April 17 and is available online with English-language subtitles.
A former executive from the company said on condition of anonymity that TeliaSonera – which is 37 percent owned by the Swedish government – has granted security services in these countries real-time access to all telephone calls, data and text messages, which has facilitated the arrest of opposition members in Belarus and a savage attack on an Azerbaijani journalist.
In Azerbaijan, the security agency even has an office of its own in the Azercell building, said the report. TeliaSonera operates Azercell in Azerbaijan, Geocell in Georgia, Kcell in Kazakhstan, Tcell in Tajikistan and Ucell in Uzbekistan, among others. It also holds a major stake in Turkey's Turkcell.
“If there was a glitch [with monitoring calls], the security agency called. They’d want us to shut down the network until the problem was solved,” the former TeliaSonera executive said of his experience dealing with the Belarusian KGB.
In Belarus, TeliaSonera holds a major stake in Life, a company that helped the KGB track down (or “position”) people who participated in a December 19, 2010, rally after fraudulent elections. Candidates were beaten and tapes of phone conversations were later used as evidence in court. “It’s like we are all in some kind of reality show. Everything we say or do might be on TV later,” said Irinia Chalip, a journalist and the wife of an opposition leader beaten up after the vote.
In Azerbaijan, when Rovshan Nasirli cast his vote via an Azercell SMS text message for an Armenian contestant during the 2009 Eurovision Song Contest, he was summoned to the security agency and called a traitor.
TeliaSonera – which posted a net profit of $2.7 billion in 2011, one quarter of which, the report says, comes from the former Soviet Union – insists its technology helps pro-democracy activists.
The company’s president and CEO, Lars Nyberg, told a board meeting shown in the report: “We firmly believe that access to phone and Internet services contribute to economic growth and an open society. That is why it is better to show presence in countries that leave something to be desired with regard to human rights.”
From a March statement on TeliaSonera’s website:
We feel that it is important to be present and build mobile networks also in countries where it is likely that the opposition will be wiretapped in a way which would be unacceptable in Sweden. For the people who strive for democracy, it is better to be able to call, tweet, send images and surf the web even if an authoritarian government is able to use the technology to track and intercept citizens. The upsides outweigh the downsides. […]
The UN has stressed the importance of building telecommunications infrastructure also in its Millennium Goals. Therefore it is not an option for us to leave these markets, as long as there are no direct sanctions and we consider our operations to be ethically sound. On the contrary, we feel that is important to offer means to communicate and access information from all around the world to as many people as possible.
The Belarusian journalist, Chalip, disagrees. Speaking with SVT, she said of TeliaSonera’s reasoning: “It’s a great explanation if you want to avoid taking responsibility. Let’s say I buy a concentration camp, then I could say that I’m not accountable for what happens indoors; I only own the land. Countries investing in totalitarian countries need to realize that they will be drawn into the dirty business of the dictatorship. They will become accomplices.”