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Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 18 June 2018

Uganda slaps tax on social media users to curb 'gossip'

Law was passed by parliment, but with no detial of how it will be applied 

Photo taken on November 20, 2017 shows logos of US online social media and social networking service Facebook. AFP / LOIC VENANCE
Photo taken on November 20, 2017 shows logos of US online social media and social networking service Facebook. AFP / LOIC VENANCE

Ugandan users of Whatsapp, Facebook, Skype and other social media will from July have to pay a daily tax, according to a new law which rights activists said Thursday was a bid to stifle free speech.

Uganda's parliament passed a law late Wednesday imposing a tax of 200 shillings (Dh 0.18) a day on users of so-called "over the top" services which publish content bypassing traditional distributors.

The new law does not spell out how the tax would be applied and collected in practice.

Finance Minister David Bahati said the aim of the legislation was only to raise revenue for public services.

However, President Yoweri Museveni wrote to the finance ministry in March urging the introduction of the tax as a way to deal with the consequences of online "gossip".

Journalist and activist Lydia Namubiru said that Museveni sees online communication as a threat to his 32-year rule.

"The president... said it was to stop young people from gossiping but what's ironic about that statement is that it comes after Bobi Wine became a member of parliament through an online campaign," Namubiru told AFP, referring to a musician turned opposition politician who has proved wildly popular with Uganda's frustrated youth.

"It's actually political speech and online organising which has real-life implications for him and his power. The overarching intention is to stifle free speech, especially now there is evidence that online organisation works."

Despite the small daily levy, Namubiru said he thinks it will be effective in curtailing social media use, as most Ugandans buy data in small bundles of 500 to 1,000 shillings (Dh 0.49 to Dh 0.97)

In April, Uganda's communications regulator instructed internet service providers to suspend unlicensed online news websites, and during the 2016 presidential elections access to social media was shut down.

The new law also imposes a new tax of one per cent on mobile money transactions. With little access to formal banking services, many Ugandans rely on mobile telephone companies to store and transfer money electronically.

"Only five million Ugandans countrywide can access the banking sector leaving the rest to mobile money services," said Winnie Kiiza, the opposition leader in parliament as she opposed the move.