Image: QuartzAfrica

Right from the beginning, African governments have been uncomfortable with citizens who speak their minds. In British East Africa, agitators for independence were corralled into concentration camps. In Mobutu’s Congo, dissidents disappeared from their homes at night, never to be seen again. In apartheid South Africa, protests for freedom by children were crushed with unspeakable force.

So thorough have governments been in this that many people of older generations developed nuanced ways of conversing about their governments. In the late twentieth century, it was the rare firebrand who dared to openly criticise leaders. And while some did gain a degree of notoriety, they universally ended up dead, in jail or exiled. Most of their supporters would slink back underground, to whisper in pubs and homesteads about the ills of the state.

But in recent times, the internet has enabled online platforms that are heavily patronised by young people, who are much less likely than their elders to keep their thoughts to themselves or even lower their voices. It has made the task of policing free speech much more complex by multiplying the fronts across which nonconforming citizens can be confronted. This terrifies governments.

The fear is not unfounded. In 2011, regimes fell across North Africa like a deck of cards, blown by the winds of protest movements coordinated on social media. It was all the confirmation many governments needed. Since then, many of them have taken steps to tighten their control over online conversations. The most extreme steps consist of the enactment of laws and policies to dissuade and punish online free speech.

It reached a head with Uganda’s imposition of a social media tax in July. The 0.05 dollar tax is levied on individuals for each day of social media use. The official line is that the country needs to widen its tax base. Writing, paradoxically on a blogpost he shared on Twitter, President Yoweri Museveni explained that “some [Ugandans] donate dollars back to […] foreigners by chatting endlessly on the social media.”

Of course, with all due respect to the President, this is utter nonsense. Most social media companies do not charge regular users. Instead, they charge advertisers who need access to their users. The ordinary Ugandan contributes nothing to Facebook’s bottom line directly. And the Ugandan advertiser who uses Twitter to market his products, while he does add to the social media company’s bottom line, also adds value to the Ugandan economy through the products he promotes.

Moreover, as Stone Atwine, a Ugandan fintech entrepreneur, contended, if the government was really interested in more taxes, it could have levied them, with much better effect, on the social media companies themselves. Many of them a corporate presence in the country or have regional offices in neighbouring Kenya. As it happened, not one of them was contacted by the Ugandan government. They will continue reaping untaxed profits off of Uganda, contrary to the supposed spirit of the new law.

Ultimately, the real impact of the social media tax has been to double the cost of going online for everyone, reducing social media usage in the country in a tangible way. Countless numbers of people are now, for all intents and purposes, muted. The truth is that President Museveni does not want Ugandans “chatting endlessly” on social media. The tone of his blog post makes it clear that this is real threat, not the abysmal tax base. His recent treatment of musician-turned-MP Robert Kyagulanyi (also known by his stage name Bobi Wine), who openly criticises him on social media, only reinforces this impression.

Uganda is not alone in pulling these tactlessly regressive tricks. In Tanzania, all bloggers now need to obtain an annual license at a cost of 930 dollars. In a country where the GDP per capita is a meagre 1,100 dollars, this puts blogging out of reach for most citizens, crippling amateur content creators. It also puts tremendous control over online speech in the hands of the government, which can now revoke permits and levy fines of over 2000 dollars on the owners of sites that publish content it is not happy with.

Up north, in Egypt, one now needs a license to set up a new website. Even worse, social media accounts and blogs with over 5,000 followers are treated as media outlets. This puts them within a category the government has worked hard to gain tight control over since the 2011 revolution that toppled Hosni Mubarak. Such websites can now be shut down, and their owners prosecuted, if they publish false news or otherwise draw the ire of the state.

In Kenya, from where I am writing this, a new law signed by the President on 16th May grants the government sweeping powers to monitor and curtail online free speech. Though it laudably criminalises aberrant online activities such as child pornography and identity theft, the law also allows the government to levy fines of up to 50,000 dollars on websites for publishing fake news, which it defines rather broadly. Fortunately, many of the problematic parts were suspended by a court for violating the constitution.

These are just a few examples of a worrying continent-wide trend. While governments pay lip service to the potential of the internet to catalyse economic growth, millions of their citizens continue to languish in the shadow of their paranoia. It speaks to the sad truth that, despite recent gains, much more needs to be done to entrench the respect for free speech and other basic freedoms in Africa.

Mathew Otieno writes from Nairobi, Kenya

Mathew Otieno

Mathew Otieno writes from Kisumu, Kenya.