Uganda’s parliament has imposed a tax on the use of social media as a means of raising revenue but opponents of the law say the main purpose of the law is to silence gossips and criticism aimed at President Yoweri Museveni, who has been in power since 1986.
According to the law, Facebook, WhatsApp, and Twitter users will be charged 200 shillings (₦713) for services used per day which is approximately ₦6,859 per year.
This law which is heavily supported by the President Yoweri Museveni who believes that social media encourages “gossip,” according to BBC News will go into effect as of July 1st, but it’s not clear how the government will monitor its citizens or how to collect the tax.
The social media law could be view as a political instrument aimed at regulating the use of social media within the country just like President Musaveni suspended access to social media apps and platforms during the country’s 2016 presidential elections.
Journalist and activist Lydia Namubiru said Museveni saw online communication as a threat to his 32-year rule. “The president … said it was to stop young people from gossiping but what’s ironic about that statement is that it comes after [popular musician] Bobi Wine became a member of parliament through an online campaign,” Namubiru said, referring to an opposition politician who has proved wildly popular with Uganda’s frustrated youth.
The junior finance minister says though that the tax has been decided to be collected daily by mobile phone operators on each SIM card used to access any of the targeted social media platforms, there have been no movement or information from cell phone operators or social media companies.
For Uganda as a country where gross domestic product per capita was around $615 in 2016, according to World Bank figures, this new tax law is insubstantial.
Different rights advocates are against this move and critics has been raised from a different angle.
“This tax is detrimental to the enjoyment of freedom of expression,” said Livingstone Sewannyana, director of Uganda’s Foundation for Human Rights Initiative.
“Its prohibitive. It shows the repressive nature of the state which is amassing as much revenue as it can to its advantage,” he added.
Uganda’s finance minister, Matia Kasaija, justified the law to Reuters in April, saying, ”We’re looking for money to maintain the security of the country and extend electricity so that you people can enjoy more social media, more often, more frequently.”
Those who are in opposition to the law say it infringes on freedom of expression and is a way for Museveni to stifle opposition to his presidency. In 2016, access to social media platforms was shut down in Uganda during presidential elections. At the time, Museveni said the decision was made to “stop spreading lies.”
Uganda isn’t the only country looking to limit its population’s usage of social media, though. Papua New Guinea recently announced that the country would block access to Facebook for a month to analyze how the population is using the service. It’s not clear why the government needs to shut down access to Facebook in order to get this data, but clearly, countries are interested in limiting citizens’ use of social media.
The new law also includes a new tax of one percent on mobile money transactions. With little access to formal banking services, many Ugandans rely on mobile telephone companies to store and transfer money electronically.
“Only 5 million Ugandans countrywide can access the banking sector leaving the rest to mobile money services,” said Winnie Kiiza, the opposition leader in parliament as she opposed the move. The country has a population of more than 40 million.