Uganda’s Social Media Tax – a threat to freedom of speech?

5 July 2018

Uganda’s controversial new social media tax has been passed this week, raising a storm of backlash from Ugandans who have taken to platforms like Twitter to express their dissatisfaction. The tax is being levied on users of major social media sites like Twitter, Instagram and Facebook at a rate of 200 shillings ($0.05) per day. It will be implemented by mobile money services run by local telecom companies, on which there is an additional tax of 0.5% imposed via a law passed by Ugandan parliament in May.

President Yoweri Museveni has offered two explanations for the tax. The first is that it would open up another form of revenue for the country, such that the government is hoping to raise over $400 million per annum to reduce the amount of money that is borrowed from external sources. “Why do we have to borrow or beg from outside or even borrow from within?” asked Mr Museveni in his recent statement. Uganda’s ICT Minister Frank Tumwebaze has said that the money will be used to “invest in more broadband infrastructure”.

Alternatively, and more controversially, President Museveni has criticised the use of social media to spread “gossip”, which raises concerns over the government’s attitude to freedom of expression. Many argue that the tax is simply a way to control criticism towards the president and presents a threat to freedom of speech.

President Museveni introduced a Social Media Tax on 1st July

The fact that President Museveni has been in power since 1986 and successfully removed age limits on presidential terms in 2017 further highlights the risk to democracy in Uganda. With a new tax on social media, there are concerns that political discourse could be stifled even further. Attempts to control internet activity are not alien to the Ugandan government: in February 2016, access to Facebook and Twitter was blocked ahead of presidential elections. The government cited cyber threats as reasons but failed to specify them. Consequently, Museveni’s success in the poll has been criticised with allegations of fraud by opposition groups.

The response among Ugandans has been largely negative, with many taking to Twitter to express their discontent, with one user tweeting “Our chances to talk about social, economic and political dilemmas are being restricted. #SocialMediaTax limits our interaction avenues.”

Some Ugandans have made an effort to curb the tax through the use of Virtual Private Networks (VPNs) although this hasn’t gone unnoticed by the Ugandan government, which has issued a statement discouraging it. Nonetheless, BestVPN, a VPN comparison site, reports that there has been a spike in Ugandan visitors to its site of approximately 1600%, suggesting that interest in bypassing the tax is somewhat high.

A group of lawyers led by Kiiza Eron has challenged the tax in Constitutional Court, arguing that it threatens freedom of expression. “This tax is meant to clamp down on free expression. It is meant to inhibit political organization online.” Eron has said, adding that there is also a threat to business start-ups who use social media.

Despite several attempts by the government to justify it, particularly in terms of the financial demand being made of Ugandans, the principle behind the tax is what bothers many. Considering the frail state of democracy in Uganda, it is important to maintain political dialogue, something that the tax could possibly diminish.

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