October 17, 2019 / 2:13 PM / 2 months ago

Lebanon plans to charge for WhatsApp calls - minister

BEIRUT (Reuters) - Lebanon’s cabinet has agreed to impose a fee on calls over WhatsApp and other similar applications, as part of efforts to raise revenues in the country’s 2020 draft budget, a minister said on Thursday.

Lebanon has one of the world’s highest debt burdens, low growth and crumbling infrastructure and is facing strains in its financial system from a slowdown in capital inflows. The government has declared a state of “economic emergency” and promised steps to ward off a crisis.

Information Minister Jamal al-Jarrah said on Thursday that cabinet had agreed a charge of 20 cents per day for calls via voice over internet protocol (VoIP), used by applications including Facebook-owned (FB.O) Whatsapp, Facebook calls and FaceTime.

The fee could potentially bring in up to $250 million in annual revenues from the country’s estimated 3.5 million VoIP users.

The country has only two service providers, both state-owned, and some of the most costly mobile rates in the region.

Lebanese TV channels cited Telecoms Minister Mohamed Choucair as saying the fee would “not be applied without something in return” which he would announce next week.

Finance Minister Ali Hassan Khalil said last month there were no new taxes or fees in the draft 2020 budget he sent to cabinet.

Lebanon is under pressure to approve the 2020 budget to unlock some $11 billion pledged at a donor conference last year, conditional on fiscal and other reforms.

Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri has said the government would work to further reduce the 2020 budget deficit.

Foreign allies are not yet fully convinced the Lebanese government is serious about reforms, and a French envoy last month criticised the pace of work.

The government only approved the 2019 budget halfway through this year. Lebanon had until 2017 had gone 12 years without a budget.

Ahead of a cabinet session on Thursday, Jarrah said ministers would discuss a proposal to raise value-added tax by 2 percentage points in 2021 and then another 2 percentage points in 2022, until it reaches 15%.

After ministers agree the 2020 draft budget, they must send it to parliament for approval.

Reporting by Ellen Francis. Editing by Jane Merriman

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