The number of people using the internet in Uganda has dropped by 26% since July 2018, when the country's social media tax was put into force. Prior to the tax's implementation, 47.4% of people in Uganda were using the internet. Three months after
the tax was put in place, that number had fallen to 35%.
ISPs charge an additional 200 Ugandan shillings (UGX) in social media tax on top of the ISP access fees and standard sales tax. This is nominally 5.4 US cents but is a significant portion of typical Ugandan incomes.
President Yoweri Museveni and several government officials said this was intended to curb online rumor-mongering and to generate more tax revenue.
The tax was the subject of large-scale public protests in July and August 2018. During one protest against the tax, key opposition leader, activist and musician Bobi Wine noted that the tax was enforced to oppress the young generation.
The government expected to collect about UGX 24 billion in revenue from the tax every quarter. But in the first quarter after the tax's implementation, they collected UGX 20 billion. In the second quarter, ending December 2018, they had collected
only UGX 16 billion.
While some people have gone offline altogether, others are simply finding different and more affordable ways to connect. People are creating shared access points where one device pays the tax and tethers the rest as a WiFi hotspot, or relying on
workplace and public area WiFi networks to access the services.
Other Ugandans are using Virtual Private Network (VPN) applications to bypass the tax. In a statement for
The Daily Monitor , the Uganda Revenue Authority's Ian Rumanyika argued that people could not use the VPNs forever, but that doesn't seem to be the case.
In addition to leaving Ugandans with less access to communication and diminished abilities to express themselves online, it has also affected economic and commercial sectors, where mobile money and online marketing are essential components of
Uganda's government has been rattled by the popularity of pop star Bobi Wine who has become an opposition politician after amassing a large following amongst the country's disillusioned youths.
The government has now proposed a new censorship law vetting new songs, film and stage show scripts. In addition artists will have to seek state permission to perform abroad.
Musicians and other artists will also have to register with the government and obtain a practicing license which can be revoked for a range of violations.
Peace Mutuuzo, junior minister for gender, labor and social development, told Reuters in an interview the new regulations to govern the music and entertainment industry were already drafted and expected to be passed by cabinet by March.
Africa's landscape of online free speech and dissent has gradually, but consistently, been tightened in recent years. In 2018 in particular, the cost of speaking out -- both legally and economically -- was on the rise across the continent.
This past year, the imposition of taxes and licensing fees on social media use and blogging in countries like Tanzania and Uganda made it more costly for Africans -- especially those living in poverty -- to communicate, seek information and
conduct business online.
Internet shutdowns remained a threat in times of public unrest or political transition, like elections. Chad , the Democratic Republic of Congo , Ethiopia and Mali all experienced government-ordered internet shutdowns in 2018 that ran for several
hours or a few days. And the now infamous shutdown in Cameroon claimed the world record for the longest known internet shutdown, after running discontinuously for a cumulative total of 230 days from January 2017 until March 2018.
And the arrest of journalists persists. In recent years, media workers have been jailed on charges ranging from publishing false information to exposing state secrets to terrorism .
Taken together, these three types of state control over internet access and use have made sub-Saharan Africa a place where the cost of using the internet -- and the political risks of using it to speak out -- have become too high for many
citizens to undertake. Promises of intellectual and economic empowerment heavily touted by international and intergovernmental organizations are becoming a pipe dream for too many people on the continent.
In 2018, the governments of Uganda , Zambia and Benin imposed new taxes on social media users, leaving them struggling to pay new fees on top of already-costly internet service. Alongside an apparent desire of government leaders like Ugandan
President Yoweri Museveni to quell online gossip , these tax policies stem from a long-standing frustration with Internet-based communication applications, such as WhatsApp. Typically foreign-owned and free of charge for anyone with internet
access, government actors long argued that these apps cause revenue losses for national telecom operators who were once the primary providers (and cost beneficiaries) of these services.
At this stage in sub-Saharan Africa's telecommunications development, tools like WhatsApp and Facebook Messenger have become the dominant applications for person-to-person communication for families and businesses and distributing public alerts
during emergencies. Making them more expensive may drastically reduce citizens' ability to communicate with one another, affecting many facets of social interaction and productivity. For some citizens, the tax will cut off access entirely.
When I interviewed women living in Bwaise, a slum in Kampala, I learned that for them, WhatsApp and Facebook are the internet. These are the only platforms they know how to use. So with the new tax, they will be cut off altogether.
Meanwhile, in Tanzania and Mozambique , new taxes have been introduced for bloggers and small publishers that could drive many of them out of business. Tanzania's so-called blogger tax requires bloggers and independent website owners to register
and pay roughly $900 USD per year to publish online. Mozambique's new scheme will assign licensing fees of up to $3300 USD for Mozambican journalists working independently.
Tanzania's new policy led to the temporary closure of Jamii Forums , which has been dubbed both the Tanzanian Reddit and Swahili Wikileaks -- creating big waves on the Tanzanian social media scene.
All told, these licensing and taxation schemes create economic and civic barriers that will have significant consequences for journalism, communication, commerce and free speech in the region.