Some African governments have been accused of exerting a lot of undue influence over the internet in order to stifle freedom of expression and propel propaganda narratives in their country. Uganda is now the latest to join this list in terms of law as the much-despised 'social media tax' comes into effect on the first of July.
With the new Over The Top (OTT) Tax, it now means that social media users in Uganda have to pay more in order to have access. Accessing sites such as Facebook or Twitter no longer comes cheap in Uganda. The OTT Tax will will levy users a daily of 200 shillings to be paid using Mobile Wallet or any other form of electronic wallets upon which access to OTT services will be granted. A weekly amount will be 1 400 shillings and a monthly fee will be 6 000 shillings.
Over The Top services are those which offer voice and messaging services over the Internet and they include Facebook, WhatsApp, Twitter, LinkedIn, Snapchat, Instagram, Skype, among many others. At least according to what the Ugandan government says.
Hey, stop the porn
The government is also introducing a porn detector. The device, much enshrouded in obscurity, was described by local media as able to "detect deleted or current pornographic materials stored on people’s computers". And the motive? To address head-on "one of the deadliest moral diseases" in the country. Yeah, pornography. Ethics Minister Simon Lokodo was once quoted by the Observer, a Kampala-based paper, saying, "the majority of office-going people spend much of their time downloading and watching pornographic material".
The social media tax, or OTT Tax has been severely criticised by people from various quarters of life. Maria Burnett, an associate director at New York-based Human Rights Watch said that the new plans are "nonsense and a thinly veiled effort to penalize social-media users". The Ugandan government is in need of more funds, and it seems taxing internet usage is good for them. The East-African country is preparing for oil production, and president Yoweri Museveni said that the move will bring in as much as 1.4 trillion shillings (about $360 million) per year, helping bridge a budget deficit projected at 6.2 percent of GDP in the next financial year and that often relies on donor funding.
But with the high levels of poverty in Uganda, will this move still give everyone the same chance to access the internet? More than 20 percent of its 40 million population live in poverty, and with this new move internet access is going to be expensive for them. It has also been noted that the new social media tax will aim to repress opposition movements in Uganda, since much of the opposition to Museveni's rule is voiced on social media.
Government with a sinister move
Haruna Kanaabi, executive director of the Independent Media Council, a local campaign group, thinks that the OTT Tax is a suspicious move. "The move in my view is suspicious and intended to make the service expensive so that it does not spread easily," he said. "Phones have become a tool of discussion and easy dissemination of information, which Museveni isn’t very happy about". This line of thinking is not even remote. Twitter and other sites were shut down during the 2016 election that returned Museveni to power. Independent media frightens some African leaders.
Museveni's political moves have roused much antagonism in the country, and the least he wants is a strong voice of opposition. And he knows the channel for that is social media. Late last year, a controversial Bill abolishing presidential age limits was approved (it even sparked a fierce brawl in Parliament). He can further lengthen his already long stay in power at the next elections in 2021.
The mysterious pornography detector
The device that would detect pornography on a computer, in order to tackle "one of the deadliest moral diseases in the country," was never explained on how it would work. The local Observer estimates the value of the mysterious device to be at $88 000.
Minister Lokodo told Bloomberg that the detector recently arrived, describing it only as a "server" that is "able to suppress pornographic material." See, no detail proffered on its method of operation.
So, is the government bluffing? Because local IT experts in Uganda say that no device is capable of scanning everyone's computer and/or phone. A likely possibility is that government can instruct internet service providers to block users from accessing certain online material.
Is it really about morality?
For the Ugandan government to claim that it wants to curb 'gossip' and 'immorality,' is just absurd. What happened to freedom of expression? The moment you thrust a tax on people's ability to freely express themselves, you just have to find another reason to couch that declaration. Well, we could be panicking. But all we know is that internet access has just become more expensive and ultimately some people are going to find it hard to get access.