Uganda imposed a “social media tax” on citizens beginning July 1, triggering protests from human rights groups throughout the week that the tax represented an attack on freedom of speech.
On July 1, the government began its policy of charging a fee of 200 Ugandan shillings ($0.05) in addition to normal internet charges for those who use social media sites such as Facebook, Twitter, WhatsApp, and services such as Skype and YouTube, as well as dating sites such as Tinder and Grindr.
Uganda’s president Yoweri Museveni first proposed the tax in March in a bid to curb a growth in “opinions, prejudices, insults [and] friendly chats,” while his government also expects to gain $100 million towards its treasury.
However, critics say the real motive was to help curb online criticism of the government and to help fund excessive spending. On social media, activists have started a Twitter account entitled #ThisTaxMustGo that has already amassed over 33,600 followers.
“Stop dancing around the truth people, we need to have a conversation on the current state of affairs in this country,” reads one of their tweets. “Having a conversation is not to abuse or insult others but to exchange opinions.”
Stop dancing around the truth people, we need to have a conversation on the current state of affairs in this country.
Having a conversation is not to abuse or insult others but to exchange opinions. #SocialMediaTax #UnfollowGovt
— The President 🇺 (@Ugaman01) July 2, 2018
The human rights group Amnesty International also called the tax a “clear attempt to silence dissent, in the guise of raising government revenues.”
“It is not the place of the Ugandan authorities to determine what discussions taking place on social media platforms are useful,” said Amnesty International’s Director for East Africa Joan Nyanyuki. “Rather, it is their responsibility to uphold and nurture unfettered enjoyment of the right to freedom of expression, both online and offline.”
“Social media platforms like Facebook and WhatsApp have opened up cheaper avenues of communication and information sharing in Uganda,” she continued. “By making people pay for using these platforms, this tax will render these avenues of communication inaccessible for low-income earners, robbing many people of their right to freedom of expression, with a chilling effect on other human rights.”
Some activists have also filed a petition at the country’s constitutional court, although such cases can take years to reach a verdict.
It is not the first time that the Ugandan government have put restrictions on social media. During the presidential and parliamentary elections in February 2016, it cut off access to social media for “security reasons,” a move that critics say was aimed at preventing dissident.