Young people decry social media tax in Uganda

In a public notice OTT Tax dated June 29, 2018, Uganda Revenue Authority informed Ugandans that following directives from the government a new tax would be imposed on OTT services involving applications that offer voice and messaging over the internet.

This took effect on July 1, 2018, as a new financial year started. The government of Uganda slapped a tax on 58 different social media services, including WhatsApp, Twitter, Facebook, Google Hangouts, Uber, Tinder, Instagram, and Skype, among others. The tax came into effect after Uganda’s President Yoweri Museveni blamed social media sites for the spread of “gossip” and “fake news.” The tax charges 200 shillings ($0.05) per day for social media use — which is not insignificant in a country where about 25% of the population lives below the poverty line (defined as less than $1.25 a day, about 4,500 shillings).

Africa Freedom of Information Centre (AFIC) conducted an assessment of Uganda’s compliance with the principles of the African Declaration on internet rights and freedoms. The African Declaration on Internet Rights and Freedoms (AfDEC) is a Pan-African initiative to promote human rights standards and principles of openness in internet policy formulation and implementation on the continent. The Declaration is intended to elaborate on the principles which are necessary to uphold human and people’s rights on the Internet, and to cultivate an Internet environment that can best meet Africa’s social and economic development needs and goals.

While having a dialogue with students of Uganda Christian University on 27th January 2020 on the internet rights and freedoms in Uganda, it was evident that the shutdown of the internet has grave effects on the education sector. A number of students related it to the recent shut down of the internet during elections; this they feel is a violation of their right to know and to access information.
In February 2016, the Uganda Communication Commission (UCC) ordered the shutdown of internet access on the eve of the general elections., citing “national security”, as well as during the inauguration of the president in May 2016, affecting social media platforms including Facebook, WhatsApp, Twitter, and mobile money transfer services.

‘’Shutdowns should only be done with a clear reason, and we should be informed of the same,’’ said Katende Simon, a student of UCU.

Students emphasized that people should be given the opportunity to share information and ideas. They further intimated that through the internet, they are able to express their dissatisfaction of the poor services by the government. The internet is helping develop spaces that can empower people, helping them communicate, collaborate and exchange views and information, and this represents, the ‘democratization’ of freedom of expression as it is no longer necessary to rely upon professional journalists or gatekeepers to act as public spokespeople for our views.
Muhumuza Anthony, who chose to play the devil’s advocate, said that as Ugandans, we are misusing the freedoms we have over the internet. He recommends that citizens should be sensitized on how best to use the internet without infringing on other people’s rights.

With the current state of youth unemployment, a number of students shared their experiences of how they use social media platforms to earn a living, they made a public outcry that government should scrap off the OTT because they feel, this unpopular tax is affecting them in one way or another. As of December 2018, Uganda had an estimated 19 million internet users, about 42% of the total population. This growth in internet penetration has partly been aided by the increase in mobile telephony penetration which stood at 22 million subscribers, with almost 10 million accessing the internet through the mobile as of June 2018.

The right to freedom of expression (including on the internet) has been provided for under Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, that states that; “Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.”

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