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Censorship under the Cloak of Democracy

Africa is becoming more democratic – a trend that is also increasingly reflected in the media. But many governments are finding other, modern ways to restrict access to information.

Bloggers, whistleblowers, citizen journalists – online writers are a thorn in the side of most African governments. Now some states have discovered a way to curb the rapidly growing influence of Internet media – democratically, or at least in accordance with the law. Instead of orders from the Ministry of Information or arbitrary arrests of reporters, social media are now taxed. Anyone who wants to obtain information via Facebook, Twitter, Skype or Youtube will have to pay extra for it in future.

“Governments on the continent have found a way to legally restrict freedom of speech and access to information,” criticises Kuda Hove, legal expert at the South African Media Institute (Misa) in Zimbabwe. The governments of Tanzania, Uganda and Zambia seem to have a number of good reasons for the new Internet tax. For example, domestic IT jobs are to be protected from global competition. But the activists suspect other motives, namely a legal method of cutting off the poorest from information.

Successful protests in Benin

Since 1 July, Ugandans have had to pay a fee of 4 cents a day if they want to access Facebook, Twitter and the like. That doesn’t seem to be much for the endless flow of information waiting on the Internet. However, the East African nation is one of the poorest countries in the world; a third of Ugandans live on 1.90 US dollars a day. In Kampala, thousands of Ugandans took to the streets to demonstrate against the taxation of the platforms. A shining example was Benin. The West African country had also enacted a law in mid-September that required users to pay an additional fee for social media. “Stop taxing my megabytes,” chanted local bloggers – and called for protest. With success. Only a few days after the introduction of taxes, the government bent over and overturned the law. Different in Uganda. His government approved the tax by a majority last Tuesday.

“This kind of tax undermines democracy because it clearly restricts free information”, criticizes Arnaud Froger, Africa spokesman for the organization “Reporters without Borders” (RSF). Journalists in Africa are increasingly using networks such as Facebook or Whatsapp to “transmit, disseminate and verify information”. Last but not least, the new taxes are also an attack on traditional media.

In Tanzania, too, the responsible politicians have recently begun to rely on payment censorship. Since March, bloggers or operators of Youtube channels have had to pay an annual fee of 800 euros. Activists challenged the tax in court, but the government won the battle. Now bloggers who don’t register and pay the fee face a penalty of 2000 euros or a year in prison. According to reports, several bloggers shut down their website as a result of the amendment; some in protest, others for lack of money.

Digital subtleties

In southern Africa, Zambia is the first country to plan to introduce a tax on Skype and Whatsapp. “Call center employees, prepaid merchants, technicians – they will all lose their jobs if more and more Zambians switch to Internet calls and thus only create jobs in America,” stressed Information Minister Dora Siliya.

Meanwhile, sophisticated users are resorting to tricks to avoid the social media tax. Some Ugandans use free programs that move them and their computers abroad – virtually at least. Thus, there is no fee for Facebook within Uganda. And Tanzanians simply registered their blogs and video portals for relatives or friends overseas in order to avoid the government levy.

These are digital subtleties unknown to the majority of the population. Ugandan citizen activist and blogger Prudence Nyamishana also knows this: “Facebook and Whatsapp are a door to the Internet for many low-income earners. Those who can’t afford the tax are now locked out.”

About Benin

Benin is a state in West Africa. It borders Togo to the west, Burkina Faso and Niger to the north, Nigeria to the east and the Gulf of Guinea, more precisely the Bay of Benin, to the south. Until 1975 the country was called Dahomey. The name stands in tradition to the historical kingdom of Dahomey. The former kingdom of Dahomey was part of French West Africa as a colony until independence in 1960. In 1990, after 17 years of Marxist-Leninist one-party rule, Benin became one of the first African democracies. Since then, the country has been undergoing a slow democratization process.

Benin is one of the poorest countries in the world. Slightly more than a third of the nearly ten million Beninese live below the poverty line. Particularly in rural areas, poverty is particularly high at around 50 percent of the population.

Benin, one of the least developed countries in the world, faces major challenges in the coming years. These include combating poverty, further decentralisation of state structures, administrative reforms, combating corruption and crime, promoting women in Beninese society, containing AIDS and reducing high population growth. In addition, the economy must be rehabilitated, the administration strengthened and investment conditions improved in order to attract more foreign investors.

Against the background of the UN military intervention in Mali and its support by the Beninese government, as well as Benin’s participation in the regional fight against the Boko Haram group, it cannot be ruled out at present that terrorist groups will engage in activities in Benin.