A despondent wave of social media tax is blowing through Africa. It is a wave that has to be stopped in its track. On July 1, 2018, in Uganda, a tax imposed on social media use because of The Excise Duty Amendment Act 2018 in the East African country came into force. In a bid to control what the government deemed ‘’gossip’’, citizens are now mandated to pay 200 Ugandan shillings ($0.05) per day of use for 60 mobile apps, including Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and WhatsApp. In a year, this fee totals about $19 in a country with Gross Domestic Product (GDP) per Capita of $604.
In Tanzania, a new law put forward by the government, The Electronic and Postal Communications (Online Content) Regulations 2018 compels owners of blogs to pay a $930 annual registration and licensing fee. This is in addition to other requirements including granting unfettered power to the country’s telecommunications regulator to order the removal of ‘prohibited content’ online without any oversight from an independent and impartial judicial body and mandating Cyber-cafes to install surveillance cameras. Prohibited content under this regulation includes any material that “causes annoyance” and “uses bad language”. The maximum penalty for violating the rules is a fine of $2,200 and 12 months in jail.
In Zambia, the cabinet approved the issuance of a Statutory Instrument to facilitate the introduction of a tariff to be charged through mobile phone operators and internet providers. The government of Zambia introduced a daily levy of 30 Ngwee ($ 0.03) on internet voice calls. As reported by the Collaboration for Internet Policy in East and Southern Africa (CIPESA), the government spokesperson had, after an August 12 cabinet meeting, said internet calls through platforms such as Viber, WhatsApp, and Skype “threaten the telecommunications industry and jobs” licensed telecom companies such as Zamtel, Airtel and MTN.
In Egypt, Parliament approved a Media and Publications law. Article 19 of this law authorizes the Supreme Council for Media Regulation to impose sanctions on owners of personal websites, blog or online account with more than 5000 followers for the publication or dissemination of false news, incitement to violence or hatred, discrimination against citizens, racism, intolerance or defamation of individuals, or insult to divine religions or religious beliefs. Therefore websites, blogs or social media accounts with more than 5000 followers will be treated as media outlets which makes them subject to prosecution for publishing false news or incitement to break the law.
In Benin Republic and Togo, the government has also tried to propose taxes on social media. Meanwhile, Internet access in Cameroun is currently being intentionally degraded by the government as they try to limit citizens’ coverage of the Presidential elections results. This follows the over 90 day Internet shutdown in the country last year.
All across Africa, governments are turning the Internet to grounds for human rights abuses. The right to freedom of expression, freedom of association, privacy – indeed all the human rights that people enjoy offline, should also be respected online.
It is heartwarming that the New Media, Citizens and Governance (NMCG) Conference is coming at this time. The NMCG, a biennial event, has proven to be an important platform to discuss issues affecting the use of new media tools and the challenges facing it. The NMCG which is organized by Enough is Enough Nigeria, Paradigm Initiative and BudgIT will afford new media experts and government officials from across Africa the opportunity to reflect on the social media tax wave that is threatening to limit free speech and free press.
Fifty speakers and two hundred and fifty delegates from seven African countries will on October 24th and 25th, 2018 in Abuja, have the opportunity to deliberate on the various ways to confront government and business actions that limit the use of new media and social media. It is our hope that governments and stakeholders across Africa would follow the conversations at NMCG to understand the position of users of digital tools.
In the midst of this dire situation in Africa, Nigeria has the chance to stand out and become a beacon of hope for human rights online. It is expected to easily fill the role as a standard bearer for human rights online in Africa with the Digital Rights and Freedom Bill, which was drafted by a coalition of experts in government, civil society and the private sector. While countries all across Africa are hurriedly drafting laws to violate human rights online, the Nigerian Legislature has passed a model law to protect human rights online, and it is presently awaiting Presidential assent. In the midst of this appalling situation on the continent of Africa, this is Nigeria’s moment.
This article is written by Babatunde Okunoye, a research officer with Paradigm Initiative, a social enterprise dedicated to deepening digital rights and inclusion in Africa. Comments and questions can be submitted to email@example.com or via twitter @ParadigmHQ.