In the minutes after midnight last Saturday night, at Kampala's Big Kafunda bar, patrons began to look confusedly at their phones. "The reception in here is terrible," one commented over the thumping house music. "My Facebook messages aren't sending."
It wasn’t the internet that was to blame. Instead, a social media tax that Uganda’s government says it has introduced to raise revenue and curb “gossip” had come into play. “I just stuck in one place after that. How was I supposed to find anyone?” another young Ugandan complained.
The new tax means Uganda's population of more than 40 million can no longer use sites and applications including Facebook, Twitter, Skype, WhatsApp, Instagram and Viber without paying a daily tax of 200 Ugandan shillings (the equivalent in euro of just under five cent). In a country where the average annual income is just over €1,100, that's a significant sum for poorer residents, who buy data in bundles of between 250 and 1,000 shillings (5.5 and 22 cent).
The tax was first conceived of in March, when Uganda's president of 32 years, Yoweri Museveni, wrote a letter to his finance minister complaining about online gossip.
“People thought it was a joke,” said businessman and photographer Bright Baba, a 41-year-old Ugandan who relies on social media to market and share his work. “Social media should be helping the youth to prosper but you are blocking them from prospering. Let them use the free opportunity.”
One worry is that that university students who need to skip classes to work will be unduly affected. “When they don’t attend classes, they have WhatsApp groups to catch up [on what was taught that day],” Baba said, adding that the extra charges might make catching up much harder for students. “You’re going to affect their education. People are trying to survive. A person is going to miss class because they’re trying to find something to eat.”
Simon Muyanga, a Ugandan media personality and political activist, agreed, telling The Irish Times, "the president is forgetting that we who are at universities are using the same services to share research, to do business, to talk to families. We are living in a virtual world now.
“Today I can take a simple selfie of myself and send to my mother in the village, she can take a selfie and send it to me. The government is not only affecting us economically, they are affecting our families. Should I lose contact with my family then?”
I can take a simple selfie of myself and send to my mother in the village, she can take a selfie and send it to me
Muyanga said he believed the tax was a government backlash against attempts to organise opposition and hold those in power to account. “The incentive is to curtail political activism and political debate, because this government is becoming more unpopular by the day. I have been a journalist for 20 years but am ready to become part of any campaign against this.”
A protest is planned for Monday, July 9th, which will see Ugandans refuse to buy or use phone credit. Muyanga said it would be a silent boycott and they expected one million people to take part.
Freedom of speech
Several legal challenges are also expected against the tax. One lawsuit, filed this week to Uganda’s constitutional court, accuses the government of breaching the principles of net neutrality, and said the law was “passed with no public participation and hinders freedom of speech and innovation”.
The government has defended the tax. Parliamentary spokesman Chris Obore told CNN social media is an obvious source of revenue for the country. "The government is trying not to over-rely on donor funding. It is just a redistributive tax as the government is out to look for money from those who have to finance projects," he said.
It is just a redistributive tax as the government is out to look for money from those who have to finance projects
Only 22 per cent of Ugandans were using the internet in 2016, according to the World Bank, though that number has been increasing sharply in recent years.
Amnesty International was one of several organisations to label the tax an attack on free speech. "It is not the place of the Ugandan authorities to determine what discussions taking place on social media platforms are useful. Rather, it is their responsibility to uphold and nurture unfettered enjoyment of the right to freedom of expression, both online and offline," said Joan Nyanyuki, Amnesty International's director for East Africa, in a statement to The Irish Times.
Wealthier and more technologically savvy Ugandans have moved to download virtual private networks (VPNs), though the government has threatened to block some of the most popular versions. Others are simply paying the levy, which can be executed daily, weekly or monthly through a phone.
However, the expense and confusion about whether the tax will stay seems to have scared some customers off.
On Wednesday in Buziga, a hilly suburb overlooking Lake Victoria, shop stall owner Diana complained her business in selling phone credit was down 90 per cent since the tax came in. “It’s not good, it’s very tough, there are some people who don’t have the money,” she said. “The people who have been supporting you will not come back. I don’t know what to do.”