As Over The Top (OTT) christened social media tax takes effect and state heighten surveillance of internet, Ugandan government has been advised to promote responsible internet usage rather curtailing the space.
The Uganda shilling 200 daily social media tax took effect on July 1st 2018, when the country crossed into 2018/19 financial year. The social media tax was broached by President Yoweri Museveni in March this year in a letter to Finance Minister Matia Kasaija. Museveni said the government would raise between Uganda shilling 400 billion and Shs1.4 trillion from the social media users annually.
Museveni argued that the tax would curtail social media gossip. “I am not going to propose a tax on internet use for educational, research or reference purposes… these must remain free. However, olugambo (gossip) on social media (opinions, prejudices, insults, friendly chats) must pay tax because we need resources to cope with the consequences of their lugambo,” Museveni argued in the March 12th letter. As a result, the tax was quickly proposed by Finance Ministry and adopted by parliament during the budget discussion.
The Mukono Municipality Member of Parliament Betty Nambooze predicament is another sign that government is coming with full force to penalise what it’s calls “irresponsible social media usage.” Nambooze was arrested after the murder of Arua MP Ibrahim Abiriga for posting a statement on social media that was construed to have instigated Abiriga’s assassination. Investigations have not been concluded to link Nambooze to Abiriga’s murder.
During Abiriga’s burial, Museveni warned that government will arrest those posting threatening messages on social media. “All those people who have been sending threatening messages on social media, we shall go for them,” Museveni warned. He accused legislators of “spending days in parliament standing up sitting down, raising point of this, point of that on freedom of speech, freedom of what and what…” He said the freedoms that people were talking about “have got a lot of danger.”
Museveni, in May when he hosted the inaugural presidential media round-table with media managers warned that government has acquired technology to help in unearthing and arresting anonymous critics like Tom Voltaire Okwalinga alias TVO. “You know we are now ready. We have the technology. We shall control it; we shall know who is spreading the bad message and we shall get him,” Museveni said referring to social media.
The Over The Top (OTT) tax and close surveillance of the sites will have a long lasting effect on social media usage in Uganda. This reporter asked the French ambassador in Uganda, Stephanie Rivoal what will be the likely effect on government policies on social media.
Rivoal said the social media revolution has not only changed Uganda but the world at large. What should be promoted, Rivoal said is the respect and tolerance for those using social media while condemning the messages of hate, racism and violence.
Rivoal said social media can be extremely useful for promoting democracy, freedom of expression and connecting people. She argued it can be used to address governance issues by linking voters to elected leaders. Social media, Rivoal said is a great communication channel when used with respect.
Human Rights Lawyer, Nicholas Opiyo says government must appreciate the benefits of social media which outweighs its negative impact. Like ambassador Rivoal, Opiyo says government should promote a community of responsible social media users.
He says government ought to promote access of social media rather than limiting it. Opiyo for instance refers to benefits such as young people using social media to do business, women using it to access information about their health, among others.
He says imposing tax and arresting critics by government is limiting rather than promoting social media access. “The government reaction to social media is a wrong reaction,” he says, warning it such reactive response will come with dangers.
The United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHCR) in 2012 unanimously adopted a resolution calling for the protection of free speech of individuals on the Internet. The resolution called its member states to promote and facilitate access to the internet and international cooperation in developing media and information and communications facilities in all countries.
Opiyo says social media is a tool for young people to express themselves. Restricting it, he warns will trigger underground movements which are more dangerous than open critics. Nicholas Opiyo likened the Nambooze predicament to using a sledge hammer to kill a mosquito.
Senior Presidential Press Secretary, Don Wanyama says the social media tax can’t be pegged on the President Museveni even when he broached the idea. “It’s not a president’s thing just like you’re trying to portray it. Taxation and the discussion around revenue is a question of parliament. These taxes were approved by MPs,” Don Wanyama argues.
On social media use, Don Wanyama says the president might have issues on its abuse. That again, Wanyama says it can’t be tagged to the president. “If you talk about people who send threatening messages on social media, that is a crime whether pointed out by the president or any other person.”
Wanyama further opined; “There is nothing about limiting peoples’ online space. And I am not sure that the most vocal government critics will fail to criticise it because there is a 200 shilling daily social media tax. They are already online, they are downloading VPNs (Virtual Private Network) to continue criticising government.”