In an attempt to clarify Uganda’s new daily levy for social media users, president Museveni, without irony, turned to Twitter to release a statement, published to his personal blog. The president who first floated the social media tax as a response to online gossip, now says it is meant to reduce capital flight and improve the country’s tax to GDP ratio, which stands at 12%.
Cabinet ministers are also fire fighting via social and mainstream media to explain the move as a legitimate tariff. The thing is not many Ugandans are convinced. In fact, four members of parliament are collecting signatures for a recall of the country’s parliament (currently on recess) to reconsider the tax, along with a 1% tax on mobile money transactions.
The 200 Ugandan shillings ($0.05) levy is a daily charge in order to gain access to services like WhatsApp, Twitter and Facebook. If the user doesn’t pay upfront for those services they are blocked from using them.
It is being resisted for many reasons including arguments for freedom of expression, net neutrality, and affordable connectivity. Other arguments are against double and/or punitive taxation and taxing individual users in lieu of the social media companies that actually make money. Most obviously though, it is being resisted because it falls within a pattern of government clampdown on online expression.
In the last eight years Uganda has written or amended several laws to restrict what content a Ugandan citizen can publish or consume online. It’s also set up a cyber surveillance police unit, a “Computer Emergency Response Team” within the Uganda Communications Commission, a National Pornography Control Committee and even attempted to procure a pornography detection machine. Every citizen has been mandated to not only register with the government but also verify their phone number using their national ID, thereby linking all phones to the birth, residence and familial details of their owners.
During the country’s last presidential elections, in February 2016, the Ugandan Communications Commission compelled mobile network operators to block social media sites and mobile money services. The commission cited national security threats.
Museveni won his fifth term in that February 2016 election and has now ruled his country for 32 years, which is longer than up to 70% of his citizens have been alive. In many ways, coping with a youthful electorate that exchange and share opinions about the state of the country on global digital platforms beyond the control of the state often seems to be the cause of much of the friction.
The Ugandan government has arrested and brought charges against several citizens for social media posts.
In June 2015, Uganda Police arrested one Robert Shaka, suspecting him of being behind a social media account which published criticism and theories on the security forces and their leadership. He was charged with offensive communication under the Computer Misuse Act, a law written in 2011. At least two other prominent people have been arrested and similarly charged under this same law since then. In December 2016, Swaibu Nsamba Gwogyolonga, an opposition politician, was arrested for a Facebook post bearing president Museveni’s image in a casket.
Journalist Joy Doreen Biira was arrested and charged with abetting terrorism in November 2016 after she posted a short video of a burning palace. Uganda’s s anti-terrorism law had been amended in 2015 to include unlawful possession of materials for promoting terrorism, such as audio or video tapes or written or electronic literature, to the list of acts that amount to terrorism.
Makerere University academic, Dr. Stella Nyanzi, was charged with cyber harassment and offensive communication in April 2017 for referring to the president as “a pair of buttocks” in a Facebook post. The post was part of her running criticism of Museveni and his wife, for rescinding a campaign promise that his government would provide menstrual hygiene products to schoolgirls. She spent 33 days in pre-trial detention in a maximum security prison.
For Ugandans, the social media levy isn’t just another tax. It is the latest in the government’s efforts to punish and discourage online expression. CIPESA, a thinktank on Internet governance, estimates that the tax will increase the cost of connectivity by 10% for the poorest users. One GB of data will now cost about 40% of their monthly average monthly income. Another viral Twitter protest therefore rages: #ThisTaxMustGo.
Lydia Namubiru, a Ugandan journalist, writes about public policy and the budding technology ecosystem in the East African region. She also teaches data journalism at The African Centre for Media Excellence in Kampala. She holds a masters degree in journalism from Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism. Follow her on Twitter @namlyd