LTA’s Dangerous April Fool’s Joke

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The Liberia Telecommunications Authority, like any other state owned entity, is required by law to make public an audited financial statement of its activities as well as an annual report, all of which have to go the Legislature for review.

To the best of publicly available knowledge, there is no information about any publication of its audited financial statement, neither is there information on any annual report the LTA may have published over the past years since its establishment.

The publication of such information for public consumption is not just required by law, it is also necessary because it avails to the public a means by which the performance of the Liberia Telecommunications Authority can be assessed especially in view of its latest proposal to increase tax on voice calls and data use.

This is not the first time the LTA and should we say the local service providers have been locked in price disputes that have claimed public attention, the most recent being the proposed change in floor price. That proposal was roundly rejected by the public and both service providers, Lone Star and Orange were forced to back down.

This was in October, 2020. And it appeared at the time that GSM companies were colluding with the LTA to increase voice-net calls and internet browsing by 200 and 150 percent respectively.  A 200 percent increase in voice-net calls meant that instead of paying one dollar for 45 minutes over a 3-day period  customers would have been required to pay US$3.00 which represents an increase of 200 percent.

Additionally, instead of paying US$2.00 for 1.2 gigabytes for 7 days, customers would have been required to pay US$5.00 for 1.2 gigabytes for 7 days. Further questions were raised then about the justification GSM companies provided for such astronomical price hike.

Both GSM companies had argued that the LTA had imposed surcharges of US$0.008 per minute on voice-net calls and US$0.0065 per megabyte. Both surcharges combined however amounted to less than one US cent. Yet the companies imposed astronomical fees of US$3.00 and US$5.00 respectively for reasons which defy explanation.

Now the idea is being resurrected with the LTA announcement of a price hike to take effect as of April 1, 2021. Already the announcement is raising public apprehension. Perhaps, officials of this government apparently are not aware of the enormous hardships its tax policies are causing for the Liberian people.

Already excise taxes on imported commodities have been increased. This does not even include the ever increasing APM tariffs which are being passed on meaning increased prices of goods on the market. For most families living on less than US$1.00 per day, decreased or restricted access to communications could be consequential in many aspects.

The decision could for instance provoke public protests and social unrest which could have potentially disruptive effects on an already weak and underperforming economy. As to whether the imposition of new surcharges is justified, it is almost impossible to arrive at an answer because the operations and activities of the LTA and the GSM companies are shrouded in secrecy and kept away from the public although they are providing public service.

By law, such companies are required to publish their audited financial statements for the public benefit, but they do not, Neither do parastatals provide annual reports to the Legislature as required by law. The Daily Observer draws this conclusion based on several fruitless attempts to source same these documents from public sources including the Legislative library.

But the Daily Observer calls on the LTA to rescind the decision to impose new surcharges. And it is doing so not out of apprehension of the adverse economic effects it will be certain to have, but it is doing so out of concern that this action by the LTA is replete with undesirable fallout potential which is not worth the risk.c

But come to think about it, here is a government whose officials have appeared very skittish since the statement from US Congressman Smith accusing this government of indulging in corruption and mismanaging the economy to the detriment of the populace.

But unbelievably, it is raising taxes on telecommunication services failing to recognize the fact that a simple phone call could make a difference virtually between life and death for many people, ordinary Liberians who are catching hell daily.

Further, the government is proceeding with its plans in apparent disregard for premonitions by the US Embassy that such price increase would threaten various programs being supported and implemented by the US Government and other donors simply because of the additional and perhaps prohibited communications costs such an increase would entail.

Perhaps officials of this government, President Weah included, do not see the link or common thread between this latest statement from the US Embassy and the statement from Congressman Smith.

Lest they deceived themselves, officials of this government ought to know that the avalanche of pro-government reportage  currently awash in the local media taking Congressman Smith to task amounts to nothing more in real terms, than an exercise in futility, a feel good attempt.

What officials of this government should be aware of is that the imposition of these new surcharges could as the US Embassy rightly observed in a recent statement urging the LTA to rescind the charges, it could poison the investment climate and ultimately undermine the economy and the successful implementation of President Weah’s Pro Poor Agenda for Prosperity and Development.

This is indeed a dangerous joke by the LTA.

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