Telecoms firm TeliaSonera to focus more on human rights

STOCKHOLM, Aug 23 (Reuters) - TeliaSonera, burnt by charges it cooperated with authoritarian governments, said on Thursday it would focus more on human rights issues where it operates and is eying Myanmar as a possible target for expansion.

The Nordic and emerging markets telecoms group, in which Sweden has a 37 percent stake, came under scathing criticism earlier this year for allowing authorities in Azerbaijan, Belarus and Uzbekistan to access its network to keep tabs on anti-government activists.

CEO Lars Nyberg said Telia, which has businesses across central Asia as well as the Nordic and Baltic regions, would take measures to bolster the protection of freedom of expression and privacy.

Requests from governments to close sites or networks would now be dealt with at board level not nationally, he said.

Telia will also cooperate with 10 other companies - including Alcatel-Lucent, France Telecom, Nokia Siemens Networks Vodafone, AT&T and Telefonica - to draw up rules on how telecoms firms implement the United Nation’s guidelines for preserving privacy and freedom of expression.

Although Telia is not considering withdrawing from any of the countries in which it operates and has management control, it would have to consider that possibility if the situation merited it, Nyberg said.

“If we experience a situation where under a certain government there are serious breaches of human rights on a regular basis ... we must be ready to have a debate in the company whether we should be in that country or not,” Nyberg said.

Telia has been in hot water again in recent days after its daughter company in Tajikistan blocked news sites at the request of the government.

Nyberg said the company itself could not solve the underlying problem that undemocratic governments could abuse their legal right to access and shut down telecoms networks.

“We need help from national and international organisations whether that be the UN, EU, (or) NGOs if we are going to make any significant impact on human rights,” he said.

Telia said criticism of its actions in central Asia has not undermined the company in countries without full democracy and where telecoms markets are set to develop fast.

Nyberg said that Telia was looking at the possibility of entering the market in Myanmar where, after decades of military rule, the government has introduced sweeping reforms, including allowing elections, easing rules on protests and censorship and freeing dissidents.

Nyberg said the developments were such that Telia could now consider operating in the country, where the telecoms network for the country’s 60 million people is barely developed.

“Two years ago I would never have thought that we could even think about going into Myanmar,” he said. “But what has happened in Myanmar over the last 18 months allows us to consider if we could do something in Myanmar.”