KAMPALA, Uganda—When the Ugandan parliament approved taxes on the use of social media platforms in spring, Ian Ortega was one of the millions of Ugandans who spoke out against the policy.
But he didn’t envisage the scale of its impact on his string of online businesses which thrive on traffic from social media.
The tax on the so-called over the top (OTT) media services impacts communication and social media platforms such as WhatsApp, Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, and others.
Since July, when the tax took effect, the website traffic that originates from social media to Ortega’s marketing website has suffered a significant decline.
“As a person who’s already paying a fair amount in taxes, I didn’t receive this social media tax in good faith,” Ortega told The Epoch Times.
“On my website pages, there’s also been a decline in the engagement rate because of the tax. As such, I have become even more skeptical of newer taxes. I believe a government that uses taxation as the only source of revenue is not creative enough.”
Uganda’s new social media tax policy has been a bitter pill for people like Ortega who use the web for social expression and personal aspirations. Ugandans now pay 200 Ugandan shillings ($0.05) a day to use popular online platforms.
It all started earlier in the year, when Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni announced a tax regime partly to curb “lugambo” on social media. Lugambo is a term used by the locals in Uganda for “gossips.”
To also defend the social media tax, Museveni was quoted in local media as saying the tax may generate as much as 1.4 trillion shillings (about $360 million) per year.
The Ugandan government has been criticized in the past for suppressing freedom of speech after shutting down websites and social media sites.
Murungi Agnes, a social worker in Kampala, Uganda’s capital, described the new tax policy as obnoxious, adding that the policy had betrayed its purpose owing to the fact that people “still spread the ‘gossip’ like the government claims.”
“I was very disappointed in the government because there are more crucial things to focus on like poor health, security, and education systems,” she said.
For activists challenging the policy, the thrust of their arguments is Uganda’s poverty statistics. More than 20 percent of Uganda’s 40 million populations live in abject poverty.
Analysts fear the tax will increase the huge digital divide in the country by limiting access to the internet, especially to the poor citizens of the East African country, as internet access costs are already high relative to people’s income in Uganda. For example, the price for a 1-gigabyte prepaid mobile data package is over 15 percent of the average Ugandan citizen’s monthly income.
Following the Model
Moves to impose taxes on social media and internet use are gaining traction in other African countries.
In neighboring Kenya, for instance, the parliament has recently approved measures to impose excise duty on telephone and internet data services.
Commenting on the policy, Benjamin Rufusa, a Nairobi-based public affairs analyst, described the trend as an “obsession” shared by some African leaders to generate funds through taxation instead of production.
The researcher is already anticipating the impact of the new tariff which will take effect in November.
“I will have to dig deeper into my pocket and reduce my time online. This is not a good thing for a scholar and researcher like me. Reduced calls to my friends and family members will affect my work a great deal,” said Rufusa.
Some telecommunication firms in Kenya, however, think the tax policy is a good move.
Mark Phillips, who works with Safaricom, for one, argues that the tax is an important revenue model for telecommunication companies, stressing it would in turn, improve the country’s economy.
East Africans are not the only ones crying foul over the tax on social media services.
Benin President Patrice Talon recently introduced a decree which prescribes a fee of 5 CFA francs ($0.01) per megabyte consumed by users of OTT services such as Facebook and WhatsApp.
Worried that the trend would soon become the norm in West Africa, PIN Nigeria, a Nigerian digital rights group, has been pushing for the abolition of social media tax in Africa.
“The citizens of many African countries, including some of those currently affected by this policy, are barely able to boast of good connectivity (or any connectivity at all) to the internet,” Tope Ogundipe, PIN Nigeria’s Director of Programs, said in a statement.
Richard Mulonga, the founder of Bloggers of Zambia and a lecturer at the Zambia Institute of Mass Communication, said that increased charges on calls made via platforms such as Whatsapp and Viber in his country will adversely impact freedom of expression.
Mulonga said many Zambians opt for internet calling options as a suitable alternative because traditional calls in the south-central African nation are very expensive and of poor quality.
The activist is planning to launch a legal challenge, while calling on Zambians to sign an online petition against the policy.
“We view the tariff as a threat to neutrality and affordability. We also see it as a threat to free speech, media rights, and access to information,” he said.