A new tax on social media has taken effect in Uganda, angering many who see the revenue measure as an attack on free speech.
The tax on users of sites such as Facebook was first proposed by long-time leader Yoweri Museveni, who complained of online gossip in a March letter that urged the finance minister to raise money “to cope with the consequences.”
In addition to the usual data fees, social media users now must pay upfront a daily levy of Shs200 (5 cents) to access all social media websites.
Service providers, including regional telecommunications giant MTN, said in a joint statement Sunday that starting July 1 the levy would be charged on “Over The Top services,” including access to websites such as Instagram, Twitter and LinkedIn. The tax will be deducted by service providers that will then pay to the government revenue service.
Many Ugandans are “bitter” because the tax “was brought in bad faith,” said Ladislaus Rwakafuuzi, a prominent human rights lawyer.
“The reasons for it were anti-people, were anti-social, not development-oriented,” he said Monday.
Amnesty International urged Ugandan authorities to scrap the tax, calling it “a clear attempt to undermine the right to freedom of expression” in the East African country.
“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,” the group’s Joan Nyanyuki said in a statement Monday.
From the social media levy the government hopes to collect about Shs400 billion (about $100 million) in the current financial year.
About 17 million of Uganda’s 41 million people are active internet users, according to government figures.
This is not the first time Uganda’s government has taken actions widely seen as curbing social media use in the country.
In February 2016, as Ugandans voted in a tight presidential election, officials blocked access to Facebook and Twitter, citing unspecified security threats. That poll, won by Museveni, was marred by allegations of fraud and late delivery of voting materials in some opposition strongholds.
Museveni, who took power by force in 1981 and remains a U.S. ally on regional security, could rule for nearly five decades after lawmakers last year passed a bill removing an age limit on the presidency. Museveni, who is 73, would have been ineligible to run again under a constitutional provision that prevented anyone 75 and above from holding the presidency.
The jettisoning of the age barrier reinforced charges by opponents who say Museveni wants to rule for life.
“Many Ugandans have been indifferent to the ills of Museveni’s regime but now that they are being directly taxed, they will probably wake up and start asking how their taxes are being spent,” said Gerald Bareebe, an academic researcher who regularly uses social media. “And I think if Ugandans come to know about how their money is being wasted through corruption, they will put pressure on the regime to change.”