Uganda’s government is doubling down on its controversial social media tax

Ugandan musician turned politician, Robert Kyagulanyi (Bobi Wine), leads activists during a demonstration against the social media tax on July 11.
Ugandan musician turned politician, Robert Kyagulanyi (Bobi Wine), leads activists during a demonstration against the social media tax on July 11.
Image: Reuters/Newton Nambwaya
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Kampala, Uganda

After a brief review period, Ugandan regulators have decided to double down on both the decision to charge citizens a daily levy for access to social media, and the controversial reasoning behind it.

Since July 1, Ugandans have been paying 200 Uganda shillings ($0.05) a day to use social media. Whoever didn’t pay was blocked from accessing sites and apps like Facebook, Twitter, WhatsApp and 55 others. To get round the blockade, many people have been using virtual private networks rather than pay the social media tax.

Ugandans have been protesting the tax online with the hashtag #ThisTaxMustGo. Offline, the constitutional court was petitioned to reverse it and a brief street protest was held in Kampala. The instant outrage seemed to convince president Yoweri Museveni’s government to review the tax.

The president met parliamentarians from his party to discuss it. The result: the tax is staying.

Speaking to journalists at parliament on Thursday, Matia Kasaija, the finance minister who on Tuesday submitted a revision to another controversial new tax (on mobile money transactions), reasoned against rescinding the social media tax. His reasoning echoed Museveni’s initial reason for floating the tax: stopping gossip.

“Lugambo [“gossip” in Luganda], kuvuuma [verbal abuse], and it has been happening to some of us. Surely? We say, pay 200 shilling per day per user. If you have money to do that kind of chatting, then pay,” he said. His words play right into criticism that the levy is meant to censor online expression.

Although he said users who will be using these platforms for educational or research purposes will be exempted from the tax, he was unclear on how this would be done. Ruth Nankabirwa, a ruling party MP who attended the meeting with the president to review the controversial new taxes said, “we were assured by the head of state that he has acquired the technology” to sift out users who are using social media for educational and research purposes.

This isn’t the first time Uganda authorities have tried to use technology to read user intent on the internet. In 2017, the government said it was going to buy a machine that would detect pornography online. That hasn’t came to pass to date.

This newfound fancy for blocking websites and apps, fits with an established pattern of punishing users for content that the authorities frown upon. The latest in this pattern is a university student whom the state is prosecuting for publishing pornography after a sex video she shared via Facebook messenger leaked onto the open web.

Ugandan cabinet with an average age of 64,  are much older than the youthful population they lead; a median age of 15 years. President Museveni, who has ruled for 32 years, is 73.

Clashes over online expression are therefore sometimes generational. In the Thursday press briefing, Matia Kasaija, the 74-year old finance minister, was taken aback when a journalist said social media is also used for business. “We wouldn’t know those things. If there are other useful areas, then you should have let us know. What we knew of was research and education,” he said on the limited, and likely unenforceable, social media tax exemption.

In the meantime, the authorities appear ready to use any and all tools, to slow the march of technology they don’t quite understand.