Zambia to tax calls made over social media apps to protect big telcos

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BY LYNSEY CHUTEL

Callers who thought they’d save money by using Internet services will have to pay even more in Zambia. The country’s government has approved a tax on Internet calls in order to protect large telcos, at the expense of already squeezed citizens.

The new tariff, announced last month, will be collected through mobile phone companies and Internet service providers. The fee will be charged at a daily rate at 30 ngwee (3c) per day, irrespective of how many Internet calls are made, explained Minister of Information and Broadcasting Dora Siliya.

Siliya, who is also the government’s spokeswoman, defended the new regulation as a means to save jobs in Zambia. Apps like WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger, and Viber enjoy an unfair advantage over telecommunications providers because they don’t pay tax, she said on Twitter. The new law would ensure competitiveness in Zambia’s telecommunications industry.

In July, the Zambia Information and Communications Technology Authority fined the three biggest telcos for failing to provide quality service amid mounting costs. Now the Zambian government is protecting those service providers. The companies Zambia thinks need protections include Africa’s largest telco, MTN, India’s global telco Airtel, and the local Zamtel.

According to the Zambia Chamber of Commerce and Industry, the tariff would choke entrepreneurs in a country where the price of doing business was already prohibitively high.

Mobile packages in the country charge separately for voice and data usage. “By introducing the tariff on Internet phone calls, it appears that government is somewhat assuming that a data-call is free,” the chamber’s president Michael Nyirenda said. “Taxes are paid by the caller on that purchase. Taxes are collected on airtime and this is where data bundles come from. Introducing a tariff only doubles the taxes.”

The number of Zambia’s mobile Internet users decreased from 6.1 million to 5.2 million in 2017, a sign that data prices already were too costly for many. The Zambia government said at the time that it would introduce policies to make access to the Internet more affordable. Instead, the state is employing a number of strategies to curb Zambians’ Internet freedom.

Bloggers of Zambia, a nonprofit dedicated to media freedom, believes the tax on Internet calls is the latest attempt to muzzle Zambians online in an increasingly authoritarian state.

“The proposed tariff on Internet calls is a threat to entrepreneurship and innovation as many youths and other citizens are using the Internet platforms to advance their socio-economic activities. Citizens across the country mobilize themselves using Internet calls,” the group’s Richard Mulonga told Quartz via WhatsApp. “Why should we make things this expensive in the midst of already over-taxed residents, coupled with high poverty
levels?”