The Ugandan Government appears to have been forced into a humiliating climbdown on their hugely controversial ‘Social Media Tax’ after violent protests on the streets of the capital Kampala, which saw both opposition politicians and journalists arrested.
Ugandan Government U-Turn on the cards?
In a statement made late last week, Prime Minister Ruhakana Rugunda conceded that the Government would have to climb down on the new tax and “take into consideration the concerns of the public”.
This is despite the Government digging in since July 1st and insisting the tax was necessary to stop people “lying” online and supposedly spending money on foreign telecoms companies. Uganda’s two biggest telecoms companies are owned by companies from South Africa and India respectively.
Amendments to the relevant legislation, the Excise Duty (Amendment) Bill 2018, are expected to be put to the Ugandan Parliament on July 19th.
The existing law only came into force on July 1st. It requires every Ugandan to pay 200 Ugandan shillings ($0.05 / 3p) a day to access popular social media sites such as Facebook, Twitter, and WhatsApp.
Predictably it has proved hugely unpopular with the Ugandan people, who argue that it amounts to online censorship and is designed to hinder freedom of speech. By the Government’s own admission, it was intended to discourage social media gossiping, much of which was critical of the regime of Ugandan President Museveni.
He has ruled Uganda since 1986 and, while notionally democratic, the country is effective under his authoritarian control. Significant public protests against the Government are rare and usually cracked down on hard by law enforcement bodies.
Protestors shot at by Police
But last week saw thousands of protestors, many dressed in red, take to the streets of Kampala to oppose the social media tax. The protests were led by opposition MP Robert Kyagulanyi, who is also a popular musician in Uganda.
Law enforcement again came down hard on protesters, using tear gas and live bullets to dispel the crowd. Kyagulanyi was arrested along with three journalists who were covering the protests. It is not known whether they remain in custody.
The protests were given the title “National Peaceful Demonstration Against Mobile Money and Social Media Tax,” a reference to the 1% tax on mobile money transactions also included in the same legislation.
Some are even arguing that this is a form of double taxation since you have to pay the social media tax using a Mobile Money app, which is then taxed again.
The protests have garnered significant support online across Uganda with the hashtag #ThisTaxMustGo trending across Uganda. There has also been a hugely well-received petition submitted to the Ugandan Constitutional Court calling for the tax to be declared illegal.
And one tech company, CyberLine, has gone so far as to file a lawsuit against the Government arguing that the tax is a breach of net neutrality and the open internet.
In the face of this barrage of criticism and the prospects of future public unrest, it seems that at last, the Government may be about to back down and roll back this ill-thought-through tax.
VPN use grows across Uganda
But for the time being it remains in place and, until the Government confirms that it is to be scrapped, Ugandan’s will continue to fear the worst.
This is why VPN use in Uganda has skyrocketed since the Tax came into force. By connecting to a VPN server outside Uganda, people can hide the fact that they are online in Uganda and so dodge the tax.
Even signing up to a premium VPN makes financial sense. For example, IPVanish allows up to ten simultaneous connections with each account.
So, if ten friends or family members club together to sign up, their individual outlay will be less than half that of the Social Media Tax and they get to enjoy all the other benefits of a VPN too.
The Ugandan Government had initially pledged to block VPNs if they were being used in this way. But they gave no indication of how they would do this, and it can be assumed that, if the Social Media Tax is indeed scrapped, this threat will quickly disappear too.
Even without the tax, it is still worthwhile Ugandan’s signing up for a VPN. The regime of President Museveni is getting more internet savvy and online censorship and surveillance is on the rise. Only with a VPN can Ugandans enjoy free and uncensored internet access.