Launched by the local bloggers’ association, the hashtag #TaxePasMesMo (Don’t Tax My Megabytes) has gone viral in Benin. They are campaigning against the tax on social networks that went into effect on 19 September and has already made Internet accounts ten times more expensive. This includes access to such online tools as Facebook, Twitter and WhatsApp, which are widely used by journalists to verify, access and disseminate news and information.
Under the decree adopted by President Patrice Talon on 25 July, a tax of 5 CFA francs (a little less than one euro cent) is imposed on each megabyte of “Internet access used for a social network platform.” Internet access providers will have to collect the tax at the end of every month.
“The rapid spread of this kind of economic pressure is worrying, because it increases the cost of producing news and information,” said Arnaud Froger, the head of RSF’s Africa desk. “It will induce journalists to reduce their use of social networks, which were increasingly being used to contact sources, share information and verify information. So, this tax is liable to affect the volume and quality of news coverage.”
Chérifou Riwanou, the CEO of the daily newspaper Le Matin Libre, told RSF: “How are we going to check information if, by downloading the photo of a piece of evidence, we have to pay a surcharge for using social networks. The state is trying at all costs to prevent us from using these platforms, which nowadays pose a real challenge to the authorities.”
Few are convinced by the grounds given by the government for imposing the tax, namely that the social networks are “making the state lose money.” Benin’s economy and finance minister recently triggered an outcry by saying the tax was intended to penalize use of social networks for “recreational” purposes and the circulation of “photos and videos critical of the government.”
In Zambia, a new tax on the use of apps such as Skype and WhatsApp to make phone calls was similarly described by the communication minister as “purely an economic decision” prompted by the fact that the government has “lost income.” The Zambian government announced on 20 August that anyone using these apps to make free phone calls would soon be taxed at a rate of almost three euro cents a day.
In June, RSF condemned Uganda’s new tax on social networks, which was unprecedented in Africa. President Yoweri Museveni, who has ruled the country for 32 years, said the tax was needed to rein in online “gossip.” There were major protests in the capital, Kampala, when the tax went into effect a month later.
Benin is ranked 84th out of 180 countries in RSF’s 2018 World Press Freedom Index, Zambia is ranked 113th and Uganda is ranked 117th.