By Daniel Mwesigwa |
The government of Zambia is set to introduce a daily levy of 30 Ngwee (USD 0.03) on internet voice calls. In a press statement issued after a cabinet meeting on August 12, 2018, the government spokesperson said internet calls through platforms such as Viber, WhatsApp and Skype “threaten the telecommunications industry and jobs” in licenced telecom companies such as Zamtel, Airtel and MTN”.
Accordingly, the cabinet approved the issuance of a Statutory Instrument to “facilitate the introduction of the tariff to be charged through mobile phone operators and internet providers.” In justifying the introduction of the levy, the government spokesperson cited research which showed that “80 percent of the citizens are using WhatsApp, skype, and Viber to make phone calls.”
The statement did not indicate when the statutory instrument would be introduced, or when the levy is anticipated to take effect. The new tax, according to reports quoting the communications minister, was expected to fetch USD 22 million annually.
The proposed levy adds to Zambia’s mixed record on ICT access and freedom of expression online. The Zambia Information & Communications Technology Authority (ZICTA) reports a mobile phone penetration rate of 81.9% and mobile internet penetration rate of 47.1%. However, mobile and internet proliferation is threatened by high costs of access, a digital divide between men and women and between rural and urban areas. Quality of service also remains poor as evidenced by the recent fines slapped by ZICTA on the three leading telecommunications service providers.
The Media Institute of Southern Africa (MISA) Zambia Chapter and a collective of bloggers have expressed deep concern about the tariffs on internet calls. They asked government to shelve the plans to introduce the tariff and to instead undertake efforts to promote affordable internet access. They argued that the “underlying objective” of the tariff is to “stifle free expression of millions of Zambians who increasingly depend on online tools to communicate.” They added that it is a “threat to entrepreneurship and innovation as many youths and citizens are using internet platforms to advance their socio-economic activities.”
Meanwhile, the Zambian cabinet has also approved the introduction of the Cyber Security and Cyber Crimes Bill that will repeal and amend provisions of the Electronic Communications and Transactions Act No. 21 of 2009. The bill will purportedly “promote an increased cybersecurity posture, facilitate intelligence gathering, investigation, prosecution and judicial processes in respect of preventing and addressing cybercrimes, cyber terrorism and cyber warfare.”
In addition to facilitating the establishment of Zambia National Cyber Security Agency (ZNCSA), which is expected to serve as the “coordination centre for all matters related to cyber security at national and international levels”, the proposed law will also criminalise “computer-based offences and network-related crime in line with the Penal Code”. Furthermore, it will “provide for investigation and collection of evidence for computer and network related crime and also provide for the admission of electronic evidence for such offences” as well as “adequately deal with various crimes committed using social media platforms.”
Zambia’s move becomes the latest in a string of steps taken by African governments to undermine internet access and affordability, and weaken the potential of the internet and related technologies to promote free expression, access to information and civic participation. In March 2018, Uganda’s communications regulator issued a directive requiring online content providers to register and pay an annual fee of USD 20. Shortly thereafter, in July 2018, social media taxes were introduced with users required to pay a daily levy of Uganda Shillings (UGX) 200 (USD 0.05) before regaining access to social media platforms which were blocked.
In neighbouring Tanzania, online content service providers and producers have to pay over USD 900 to register with the state for permission to maintain their platforms, according to new 2018 regulations. Meanwhile, in the Democratic Republic of Congo, in mid June, the ministry of communications issued a decree giving online media outlets a month to comply with new regulations or face harsh penalties.