Taxing dissent: Uganda’s social media dilemma

Tourists take selfies at the monument marking where the road out of Kampala crosses the equator. Kayabwe, Uganda, September 2017. Photograph by Jason Houston for USAID.

Every day, millions of Ugandans hop on social media to get the latest news, chat with friends, and express their views. 

But in May 2018, when the Ugandan government introduced controversial taxes on social media and mobile money services to raise revenue and “curb gossip,” it amounted to an internet shutdown in terms of accessibility and affordability. 

A year and a half later, the number of internet users has dropped by at least 30 percent, about 3 million users, according to Deutsche Welle. 

Since July 2018, when the law went into effect, Ugandans have to pay .05 cents (United States Dollars) per day to access the internet along with 50 over-the-top media services (OTTs) — streaming media offered directly through the internet. 

The taxes apply to social media platforms and apps such as WhatsApp, Facebook, Twitter, Skype and Viber. Given that these social media platforms have been main news distribution sources, journalists noted a significant decline in the level of engagement with readers. 

With one-third of Ugandans living below the poverty line, surviving on $1.90 USD per day, the new tax drove thousands offline and off social media to meet other basic needs.

Poor, marginalized groups continue to be hit hardest.  

According to the Internet Health Report 2019, that tax has directly pushed poor people offline, increased barriers to internet access and greatly limited freedom of expression and access to information as well as access to online goods and services:

With the average Ugandan already spending 15 percent of their monthly income for 1 [gigabyte] of broadband data, the new tax puts popular Internet services out of reach for most people.

Others, however, have begun to use Virtual Private Networks to avoid the tax. A year of its implementation, the tax raised only 49.5 billion Ugandan shillings ($13,434,225 USD), or just about 17 percent of the expected revenue, due to increased VPN usage according to the Uganda Revenue Authority. 

The government had previously warned that all installed VPNs would be blocked. In July 2018, Uganda Communications Commission’s (UCC) executive director, Godfrey Mutabazi, said the government already had all “‘needed software’ to block VPN services, according to a Daily Monitor report, but Ugandan authorities have not yet taken steps to block VPNs.

That same month, Mutabazi tried to deter Ugandans from using VPNs when he said, “It will cost more than the cost of bandwidth and the social media tax,” in a Facebook statement on the Government of the Republic of Uganda page. He explained that VPN encryption utilizes slightly “more bandwidth” and most user connections have caps and overage fees.

Netizen Charles Onyango-Obbo said that the OTT tax hit youth harder as a cultural tax. He noticed fewer social media photos for 2018 #NyegeNyegeFestival even with higher attendance than 2017, due to the social media tax. 

Mobile money transaction at agent's office in Uganda. Photo by Fiona Graham via WorldRemit, CC BY-SA 2.0.

A tax on dissent?

Uganda’s finance ministry said the aim of the tax was to raise revenue, but President Yoweri Museveni also called for the tax to regulate “gossip.’’ Activists slammed it as an attempt to restrict free speech and crack down on dissent. 

Government officials have continually denied any intention to shut down opposition voices via social media tax. 

Jimmy Haguma, a cybercrime investigator at UCC, explained in an interview with Global Voices that “social media taxes were discussed in parliament in detail. Any government, when they put up taxes, the first priority is to raise revenue because the government realized that there are many people on social networks doing business and raising money, communicating on the domain and not being taxed.” 

According to Haguma, the government also introduced the social media tax to create more accountability and responsibility — if people pay taxes on social media, they are less likely to waste their time and will communicate more responsibly.

However, Haguma did hint at other motives for the tax:

Sometimes, the government has [its] own intentions because the president can sometimes be his own ‘chairman.’ Government employees are bound to codes of ethics such as the Official Secret Act, Non- Disclosure Act and you may not easily get other reasons directly — unless it is a court case. It is an internal process. 

Extending the internet beyond Kampala was one reason the government gave for introducing the tax. According to The East African daily, “The government needs over 200 billion USH [Ugandan Shillings] ($536.3 million) to extend internet access to rural areas since the government had previously borrowed to invest in affordable Internet, it was time Ugandans contributed to this effort through the tax,” as quoted from David Bahati, Uganda’s State Minister of Finance for Planning. 

At a protest march against the tax in Kampala on July 11, 2018, organized by musician and People Power opposition party leader Robert Kyagulanyi (known as Bobi Wine), police fired live bullets and tear gas to disperse the demonstration, deemed illegal by the police. Protesters argued the tax violated Ugandans’ rights to free expression and information. 

Based on the report, “How Social Media Taxes Can Burden News Outlets: The Case of Uganda,” the timing of these events plays into the idea that the “social media tax was intended to suppress opposition.” Juliet Nankufa, who authored the report, draws from the example of Bosmic Otim, a musician who faced censorship when, in June 2018, security officials in Kitgum, northern Ugandan, banned a song that was critical of government officials for being misleading and inciting violence. The song “criticized four parliamentarians for allegedly being sycophants of the government and unresponsive to citizens’ problems in northern Uganda,” according to Human Rights Watch

Nakufa’s report also draws from the experiences of Bobi Wine, who, over the course of 2018, was denied the opportunity to perform and meet with constituents, and often took to Facebook to narrate his experiences. The social media tax was implemented at the very same time the opposition leader was being targeted.

The case of Bobi Wine

Popular singer Bobi Wine speaks at a protest against the social media tax on July 11, 2018. Photo shared widely on Twitter.

On July 11, 2018, Member of Parliament (MP) Bobi Wine, took to the streets of Kampala to protest against the newly introduced social media tax, along with his followers and concerned citizens and activists. 

That same day, police summoned Bobi Wine and others for “disobeying the provisions of the Public Order Management Act (POMA) 2013 Sections 5 and 10,” according to New Vision, Uganda’s largest news outlet. The accused included Fred Nyanzi Ssentamu, a businessman and brother to Bobi Wine, barber and aide, Edward Sebufu alias Eddie Mutwe, disc jockey David Lule and student Julius Katongole. 

Wine was charged with “holding a public meeting without giving notice to any authorized officer,” ‘’holding a public meeting without adhering to the required criteria’’ and ‘’refusing to cooperate with the police’’ under POMA Sections 5(1) and Sections 10(2), and summoned through a letter signed by Joshua Tusingwire, the officer in charge of criminal investigations with the Kampala Central Police. The letter, addressed to Parliament Speaker Rebecca Kadaga, detailed tentative charges of “assault, illegal assembly and theft of police handcuffs.”

On April 29, 2019, Bobi Wine was arrested again after he was summoned by the criminal investigations directorate to investigate his role in the anti-social media tax protests.

He was released on May 2, but continues to battle his charges in court.

On October 28, Bobi Wine appeared at Buganda Road Court, but his hearing flopped the second time in two months and postponed to December 12. The trial magistrate, Esther Nahilya, told him that his case lacked sufficient witnesses.

The Daily Monitor reported that shortly after the court session, Kyagulanyi told reporters that “the charges brought against them are exceeded since the state brought up the charges to him and his accused so as to divert them from their political agenda of challenging president, Yoweri Museveni, in the 2021 elections.”

President Yoweri Museveni has been in power since 1986. In 2017, the parliament passed a bill — later enacted by Museveni — to remove the maximum age limit of 75 to run for president, which would allow the 74-year-old to run again in 2021. 

Bobi Wine announced his bid for the presidency, vowing to challenge Museveni “on behalf of the people.” However, if he were to be convicted of any criminal charges, he would be disqualified.

An MTN mobile money stand in Gulu Town, Uganda. PHOTO: Fiona Graham/WorldRemit, CC BY-SA 2.0.

Uganda’s social media dilemma

Some Ugandans are still able to access OTT services including social media platforms and messaging apps, without paying the tax, through the use of VPNs. Haguma, with the UCC, acknowledged that this usage is difficult to measure or track because it appears as though these users are communicating from other countries outside Uganda. 

Regarding the UCC study that shows a 12 percent drop in internet users in the three months after the tax was introduced, Haguma said this drop occurred because of its quick implementation and that the study was based on those who pay social media taxes — not VPN users. 

Many Ugandans are still willing to pay the price to get online, even if it hurts their wallets. 

However, based on mass protests decrying the social media tax over the last year, and the government’s record of shutting down dissent and opposition, Uganda faces a social media dilemma. 

As the opposition heats up and more people find their way around the obstacles posed by the tax, social media will play a critical role in Uganda’s fight for free expression.

This article is part of a series of posts examining interference with digital rights through methods such as network shutdowns and disinformation during key political events in seven African countries: Algeria, Ethiopia, Mozambique, Nigeria, Tunisia, Uganda, and Zimbabwe. The project is funded by the Africa Digital Rights Fund of The Collaboration on International ICT Policy for East and Southern Africa (CIPESA).

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