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Social Media Tax: African Leaders and the Disdain for Dissent

In July this year, the Ugandan government implemented its social media tax. It was initially proposed that there should be a $0.5 (£0.39) tax on all social media platforms including Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat etc., and a $1 (£0.78) on Mobile transfers. There was outrage from various civil society organisations and even members of parliament who disapproved of the new tax regime.

The government was quick to defend the tax regime, citing various reasons for going ahead with the tax. The government stated that it needed to curb ‘gossip’ which had become a mainstay of social media in Uganda, and earn revenue from the use of popular social media applications. The international community, like most Ugandans, do not believe the government. It is worth noting that during the country’s elections in 2016 there was a complete shutdown of social media sites, with government officials clamping down on users who were against the president. Thus, the government's claims, that it wants to generate revenue from a sector it claims is responsible for 'gossip', makes little or no sense to Ugandans.

The government did not expect the outrage that followed the introduction of the tax. As a result, in early August the government announced that while the $0.5 tax will remain on social media platforms regarded as 'Over the Top Services' (OTTs), it will cut down the mobile transfer services to $0.5 as well.

In the heat of all this, Facebook recently announced that it will be pulling out its intended investments from Uganda as a result of the tax regime.

Pictured:Yoweri Museveni, President of Uganda

So what does the tax on social media in Uganda mean to most Africans?

There is clearly a trend emerging. Africans have already experienced attempts to clamp down on dissenters by their governments; this was deployed in Egypt and Libya during the Arab spring, where the governments tried to clamp down on social media use to prevent dissenters within the state from communicating. This failed and caused a major uprising. In Nigeria, lawmakers were mulling over a bill to control social media use, as “fake news” had portrayed the current government in an undesirable manner. This was vehemently fought in the assembly by fellow lawmakers and other Nigerians who signed petitions and threatened to sanction their lawmakers should the bill succeed.

While the assault on the local press seemed to have been condemned by the wider populace, including members of the international public, there seems to be less condemnation of crack downs on social media. This may be due to the fact that social media is seen as a luxury tool as opposed to an information hub. Thus, there is less outrage when a favourite dictator places a ban on social media as opposed to when the dictator imprisons a prominent journalist.

This still leaves the unanswered question of why men, who once fought to be free from the shackles of colonial domination and partook in the PanAfricanist movements, have taken to a colonial-style clamp down on those who resist them and their current style of governance.

In upholding the ideals of a truly democratic government, which is 'by the people and for the people', it is clear that our African leaders need to take steps to ensure freedom of speech and expression. These rights should not be hindered, except where such expressions could evidently lead to violence against fellow citizens.

The social media tax in Uganda is highly condemnable. Thus, civil groups, within the country and outside of it, are called on to express their disdain towards this evident clamp down on the people’s voice.

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