Author: George Kitsaras
Editor-in-Chief / Psychologist / Doctoral Researcher
A few months ago, in the height of the rainy season, a new tax came into effect in Uganda named “Social Media Tax”. In simple terms, all mobile phone users who access and use social media like Facebook, What’s App and Instagram will have to pay UGX 6.000 a month or around UGX 200 per day. For the monthly charge, that’s the equivalent of 2 meals for a family of four, a considerable amount for the average Ugandan. The new tax received a hostile welcome from everyday citizens while the government tried to convince them that the tax is necessary in order to limit gossip and its effect on society. Of course, government’s rhetoric didn’t convince many.
Landing at Entebbe International airport, one of the first things to do as a foreigner is to get a local sim card. After all, European mobile phone providers charge ridiculous prices for access to data and calls while in country. When heading out of health and immigration control, the different local mobile phone providers line both sides of the baggage claim area. In an incredibly packed, humid and hot environment, one after the other tourists and in some cases locals patiently queue in order to get hold of a much-needed Ugandan sim card. In this particular setting, the impact, if any, of the “social media tax” was far from clear.
A couple of days later, in a chilled conversation with Emmy, a 30-year-old self-employed Ugandan living in the North of the country, the whole issue of the “social media tax” came up. At first, Emmy seemed slightly amused by the entire issue making a comment on the way Ugandan government taxes everything “soon it’ll be the air we breathe, the water we drink!” he proclaimed in his usual jovial manner. However, when I asked him about the true impact of the tax to his day to day activities and interactions his manner changed. Emmy looked at me, took a sip from his drink and replied:
“Joking aside, I have trouble accepting this tax. At first, I thought to myself is this a tax to raise more money for public services or is it a tax to minimise communication between people? I quickly came to the realization that it’s a tax with dual purpose but with the element of controlling people being the most important one. That made me angry because it’s not fair to constrict our communication especially since we all use social media to chat, to comment on things, to plan our schedule. Other people use social media for work like the Boda Boda drivers (Boda Boda are traditional motorcycles that carry people around towns). It’s an unfair tax aiming at the everyday people and the poor. They should have taxed the big Chinese companies that come here and take all the big projects and all the money instead!”
Emmy’s response was both elaborate and passionate. As if he had thought about this for some time now and he desperately wanted to share it with someone. After all, I was the foreigner who cannot judge or even worse who cannot try to harm him by sharing his thoughts and comments in an ever-controlling and mistrusted society. In my ears, Emmy echoed the thoughts of the millions affected by an unfair, unfounded and unnecessary tax. A tax that hugely and disproportionately affects those you cannot afford it.
Social media, despite their many, many issues, offered a new way of social interaction that transcended national boarders, socio-economic disparities and unlock unthinkable possibilities. Apart from easing communication and creating opportunities social media had another, widely unpredictable, effect; they managed to topple authoritarian and barbaric governments, strengthen resistance movements, spread news of human rights violations and demand justice for those in need. That effect terrorised many despots and sultans around the world who in return unleashed their crowd control machines to cut down on social media access and restore control of their citizens. In most cases, people still managed to find different, uncontrolled ways of communicating uncovering the systemic failures and the desperate nature of security states and crowd control measures.
Back in Uganda, the “Social Media Tax”, the first of its kind in Africa, is a blatant example of an ailing government’s attempt to control its people. Ugandans are already devising ways of fighting back to this unsounded and hugely damaging tax; the government tries hastily to follow those ingenious ways of resistance. The entire issue has now turned into a game of hide and seek. At the end, the faith of the “Social Media Tax” will be determined by a myriad of things.
After all, governments tend to harshly tax and punish those who they fear the most.