From 1 July onwards, users of WhatsApp, Facebook, Twitter, Skype and similar services will have to pay a daily tax of the equivalent of 5 US cents in order to keep using them. Parliament passed the law on 30 May in response to President Yoweri Museveni declared desire to rein in online “gossip.”
Among those penalized by the new law are bloggers and journalists for whom social networks are still a space where they can express themselves more freely than in the traditional media.
“With a fairly unfree media, social media platforms have become the driver of debates on key issues and a space to criticize Museveni's government,” Rosebell Kagumire, one of Uganda’s most influential bloggers, told RSF. “This tax is a desperate attempt to stifle the voices of Ugandans and restrict access to the Internet.”
Another 1 million Ugandans gained access to the Internet in 2017, bringing the overall number of users to 13 million, or about a third of the country’s population.
“After Internet cuts and the creation of an Internet surveillance unit, the adoption of this tax, which is unprecedented in Africa, poses a new barrier to the production and dissemination of online news and information,” said Arnaud Froger, the head of RSF’s Africa desk. “Uganda has created one of sub-Saharan Africa’s worst cyber-censorship arsenals.”
Last year, RSF condemned the Ugandan government’s creation of a special unit consisting of state security officers and IT experts tasked with closely monitoring social networks in order to identify those posting comments critical of the government.
The authorities used supposed security threats and the alleged danger of public opinion being manipulated as grounds for disconnecting social networks several times during the 2016 president election and, a few weeks later, when President Museveni was sworn in for another term.
Regulations restricting Internet use have increased in recent months in the region. In March, Tanzania adopted a law under which bloggers and websites have to pay an exorbitant fee to register with the authorities.
After objections from media associations, Kenya’s high court has suspended most of the sections in a law promulgated on 16 May under which journalists convicted of online defamation could be sentenced to up to ten years in prison and fined the equivalent of 42,000 euros.
Uganda is ranked 117th out of 180 countries in RSF's 2018 World Press Freedom Index, five places lower than in 2017.