Saturday April 21, 2018
By Isaac Mwangi
East African News Agency, Ausha
By seeking to tax and control how their citizens use the Internet, East African countries have once again demonstrated to the whole world the reason they remain behind in technology.
Rather than encourage technological innovation in information technology, the region is instead seeking to control the flow of information for obvious political reasons.
No doubt, the new laws will result in the stifling of innovation, leading to stagnation as the rest of the world moves on. The efforts in the region to seemingly consolidate power among themselves to the exclusion of significant segments of the populations have no doubt informed the new thinking to interfere with the free flow of information on the Internet.
In Uganda, social media users will from July pay a new tax. Tanzania, on the other hand, will require bloggers and owners of websites to pay a new annual licence fee. Whether these new demands are informed by revenue needs or fear of new media, they may prove in long run retrogressive and will affect the freedom of expression.
Kenya, which has in recent months increasingly leaned towards harsh measures, is likely to take the cue and seek to impose similar measures. East Africans will therefore find themselves with less space within which to engage in political and democratic dialogue using new media.
Of course, governments are likely to point out the negative effects that unregulated Internet and social media usage could lead to.
As is customary, governments rely on fear to drive unpopular measures, and the fear of terrorism has been the main excuse for all sorts of security clampdowns and interference in individual liberties in recent years. For sure, this will also be cited as a prime reason for the measures to control social media.
But governments have a responsibility to protect people from criminals while allowing law-abiding citizens to go about their business unmolested.
And this is where East African countries seem to be failing. Indeed, far from providing a business environment that is conducive and well regulated, governments in the region appear to understand the aim of regulation as the creation of the most hindrances they can possibly come up with.
It is an attitude that hinders any sort of progress. Where progress does occur, it is generally despite the government machinery, not because of it. This is true of numerous sectors, from health and education to manufacturing and cross-border trade.
The tragedy is that the Internet cuts across sectors and is a major factor in the effectiveness of any company or business effort in the 21st century.
People use WhatsApp, Facebook, Twitter and other apps not just for catching up with each other on the social front, but also to do serious business.
The region’s governments should instead further encourage or step up use of social media for business communication and then tax the resulting business returns, as has always been the case.
As it is, taxing the Internet discourages its use, which in turn stifles growth. It also gives countries a negative international profile that puts off potential investors.
Moreover, both citizens and visitors are able to see that the new measures are aimed at curtailing basic freedoms, which has an impact on human-rights perceptions regarding the region.
In controlling the Internet, the region will definitely have a powerful ally in China. But then, China is a superpower that has benefited from years of benevolent dictatorship.