In a country that blocked Twitter and Facebook on the day of its 2016 general elections, a new tax on social media becomes another stage of President Museveni’s increasingly controlling policy in his attempts to cling onto power. The tax was introduced in July 2018 and charges Ugandans the equivalent of $0.05 per day, a total of $18.25 per year, for the use of any one of 60 social media apps including Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Snapchat. This could represent up to 40% of the cost of phone bundles, causing some companies to withdraw the offer and raising already relatively high data costs. It has supposedly been implemented to combat the spread of olugambo (gossip).
However, in the context of Museveni’s disregard for democratic procedures, this small tax appears to represent a much larger threat to freedom of speech and Ugandan democracy.
Opposition to the tax has been widespread, with both international human rights organisations and domestic politicians voicing their concerns. Amnesty International Regional Director for East Africa, the Horn, and the Great Lakes, Joan Nyanyuki, said that ‘the primary motivation behind [the social media tax] is to silence speech [and] to reduce the spaces where people can exchange information’ and a prominent opposition MP in Uganda, Robert Kyagulanyi, joined in protests saying ‘this time, as leaders, we are only coming to join Ugandans because the people raised their voice- which has been and still stands- that this tax must go.’
Museveni’s claim that social media is ‘a luxury’ as it facilitates ‘chatting, recreation, malice, subversion [and] inciting murder’ is highly questionable. It ignores the fact that many popular forms of social media are free for anyone to use over the age of 13, and it overlooks the importance of social media as a platform for any voice to be heard as well as access to information and diverse political viewpoints. Therefore, not only should Ugandans not be taxed for something they don’t have to pay for in the first place, but it is important to protect their access to and participation in fundamental democratic practices.
These provisions by social media become even more important when placed in the context of President Museveni’s rejection of constitutional restraints and use of power to limit opposition. In 2005 he abolished term limits, and in 2017 he removed the upper age limit for a Ugandan president, allowing him the opportunity of running for a sixth term in 2021. Museveni’s determination to hold on to the presidency also extends to arresting protestors, which happened in August 2018 when citizens opposing the arrest of Kyagulanyi were shot at, leaving five injured and one killed. The collective impact of these actions and the new restrictions to social media sets an alarming tone for Museveni’s fifth term as although the tax can be seen as a minimal restriction on access to social media and the resulting promotion of freedom of speech, the underlying principle remains the same.
Of the 42% of the population who are online, many of them have been able to avoid the tax by using Virtual Private Network (VPN) services, limiting the actual impact the tax has had on access to social media. Therefore, although the tax itself doesn’t have a hugely significant impact on freedom of speech in Uganda, the principles behind it are still very alarming. Museveni has placed financial restrictions on Ugandans’ access to social media, which is used by many to express political opinions and share current affairs information. Furthermore, the combination of this tax and Museveni’s other actions towards dissenting voices in Uganda, such as that of Kyagulanyi and his supporters, does suggest that this tax is representative of Museveni’s determination to hold onto power regardless of its cost to democracy.