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Thursday, November 30, 2023

Making Sense of Social Media Tax in Uganda

The World Bank became the first big lender international organization to call for the srapping off of Over the Top Tax (OTT) dubbed social media tax in Uganda.

In a statement its Uganda economic update 2020 report World Bank noted that the tax has not achieved its intended objective because “the tax is difficult to collect and easy to bypass by more technically-savvy users”. This means that if some people can easily escape paying it then there is no purpose to have it in place. The tax which was expected to generate at least 284 billion shillings annually can only generate 49.5 billion shillings  since majority of the Ugandans resorted to use Virtual Private Networks (VPN) to bypass the tax.

According to reports by Uganda Communications Commission (UCC), social media tax has had a significant impact on the number of internet users in the Uganda as there has been a drop in the number of internet users. About 5 million internet users have stopped using internet ever since social media tax was introduced in 2018. The figures indicate that subscribers who have used OTT services, only 50.4% of the internet subscribers were enjoying OTT services while others have resorted to the use of VPN.

World Bank continued to say that social media tax is instead reducing the proportion of internet users and widening digital and income inequality and thus this should be re-evaluated.

The UN recognizes information access as a fundamental human right. This is provided for under Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights 1948, which states that the fundamental right of freedom of expression encompasses the freedom “to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media regardless of the frontiers”. 

In the case of Oloka Onyango and another VS AG  quoting from an article by Achibald Cox in society Justice Mulenga noted “Some propositions seem true or false beyond rational debate. Some false and harmful political and religious doctrines gain wide public acceptance. Adolf Hitler’s brutal theory of a ‘master race’ is sufficient example. We tolerate such foolish and sometimes dangerous appeals not because they may prove true but because freedom of speech is indivisible. The liberty cannot be denied to some ideas and saved for others. The reason is plain enough, no man, no committee, and surely no government, has the infinite wisdom and disinterestedness accurately and unselfishly to separate what is true from what is debatable, and both from what is false”.

This disputes President Museveni’s allegations that most of the things on social media are full of rumourmongering. Justice Mulenga added that “the criterion of falsity falls short of this certainty given that false statements can some times have value and given the difficulty of conclusively determining total falsity”. The explains the fact indeed the introduction of social media taxi is a constraint to freedom of expression.

The introduction of social media tax has limited the use of internet in Uganda by many saying they cannot afford to pay the tax daily. Social media tax has also constrained  the use of internet by limiting means of communication and information access in Uganda. This has affected business especially employees in different organizations where different social media platforms are used to disseminate information.

Looking at the developed nations such as US,UK and Germany, efforts have been ensured that access to Internet is more easy and cheaper for citizens; this has become the opposite in Uganda with OTT. The rationale behind this is that an informed citizenry is an empowered one and information is key to development.

With the Uganda’s Electoral commission declaring that 2021 election candidates will have to campaign online and through the media to reach voters as part of new rules to stem the spread of COVID-19. It remains questionable and debatable on how people will access information about their candidates with social media tax still in place. Charging an Internet user over 200 per day implies 6000 a month which translates into about 72000 a year on top of data subscription charges. This means that same Internet users will not find easy access to Internet regularly because of the cost hence curtailing their right to information access.

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