Africa's landscape of online free speech and dissent has gradually, but consistently, been tightened in recent years. In 2018 in particular, the cost of speaking out -- both legally and economically -- was on the rise across the continent.
This past year, the imposition of taxes and licensing fees on social media use and blogging in countries like Tanzania and Uganda made it more costly for Africans -- especially those living in poverty -- to communicate, seek information and
conduct business online.
Internet shutdowns remained a threat in times of public unrest or political transition, like elections. Chad , the Democratic Republic of Congo , Ethiopia and Mali all experienced government-ordered internet shutdowns in 2018 that ran for several
hours or a few days. And the now infamous shutdown in Cameroon claimed the world record for the longest known internet shutdown, after running discontinuously for a cumulative total of 230 days from January 2017 until March 2018.
And the arrest of journalists persists. In recent years, media workers have been jailed on charges ranging from publishing false information to exposing state secrets to terrorism .
Taken together, these three types of state control over internet access and use have made sub-Saharan Africa a place where the cost of using the internet -- and the political risks of using it to speak out -- have become too high for many
citizens to undertake. Promises of intellectual and economic empowerment heavily touted by international and intergovernmental organizations are becoming a pipe dream for too many people on the continent.
In 2018, the governments of Uganda , Zambia and Benin imposed new taxes on social media users, leaving them struggling to pay new fees on top of already-costly internet service. Alongside an apparent desire of government leaders like Ugandan
President Yoweri Museveni to quell online gossip , these tax policies stem from a long-standing frustration with Internet-based communication applications, such as WhatsApp. Typically foreign-owned and free of charge for anyone with internet
access, government actors long argued that these apps cause revenue losses for national telecom operators who were once the primary providers (and cost beneficiaries) of these services.
At this stage in sub-Saharan Africa's telecommunications development, tools like WhatsApp and Facebook Messenger have become the dominant applications for person-to-person communication for families and businesses and distributing public alerts
during emergencies. Making them more expensive may drastically reduce citizens' ability to communicate with one another, affecting many facets of social interaction and productivity. For some citizens, the tax will cut off access entirely.
When I interviewed women living in Bwaise, a slum in Kampala, I learned that for them, WhatsApp and Facebook are the internet. These are the only platforms they know how to use. So with the new tax, they will be cut off altogether.
Meanwhile, in Tanzania and Mozambique , new taxes have been introduced for bloggers and small publishers that could drive many of them out of business. Tanzania's so-called blogger tax requires bloggers and independent website owners to register
and pay roughly $900 USD per year to publish online. Mozambique's new scheme will assign licensing fees of up to $3300 USD for Mozambican journalists working independently.
Tanzania's new policy led to the temporary closure of Jamii Forums , which has been dubbed both the Tanzanian Reddit and Swahili Wikileaks -- creating big waves on the Tanzanian social media scene.
All told, these licensing and taxation schemes create economic and civic barriers that will have significant consequences for journalism, communication, commerce and free speech in the region.