Unmasking Uganda

Unravelling Uganda: Where Live Social Media Comes With A $27 Tax


September 9, 2020

Mondays are often associated with a tag that is perhaps unfair: “the most hated weekday.” But Ugandans would have had one more reason to loathe this past Monday especially. 

Early that day, the Uganda Communications Commission (UCC) put up an unsettling announcement on its official Twitter page; a message that was always going to spark outrage.

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Why the outrage? Well, it turns out that the UCC, a government-backed regulator, has mandated all “providers of online data communication and broadcasting service” to obtain authorisation from the UCC by 5th October 2020.

Doesn’t sound like much of an outrage-sparking development, right? Except that it is. Drilling down to the details, it is revealed that the UCC requires any person or group who uses any channel, including social media, to provide online data communications and broadcasting services, to obtain authorisation, starting with paying an annual fee of UGX 100 K (USD 27.00).

To clarify, the UCC did say the following in a now-deleted tweet: “If your social media page is used to transmitting sound, video, or data intended for simultaneous reception by the public (broadcasting) and by data, we mean electronic representation of information in any form audiovisual, you need authorization as a data communicator.”

This would imply that going live on platforms like Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and others now requires a license in Uganda, obtainable after paying a fee, whether the entity in question is a media outlet or a recreational social media user.

The explanations from the Executive Director of the UCC, Irene Kaggwa Sewankambo, stating that the licensing requirement is not new and is necessary for the protection of national interest, has done little to assuage concerns, nor has it quelled the outrage in Uganda and even outside the country.

Sewankambo suggested that the requirement was introduced in 2018 after engagement of existing online data communication and broadcast players and that to date, 48 players are already registered and working with UCC on this.

“Why do we regulate? To uphold our national values, protect our national identity, balance commercial, and public interest, and oversee user redress mechanisms. This includes protection of minors, protection of the public from harmful, malicious, misleading and/or illegal content,” she tweeted.

But many Ugandans haven’t taken the news too well as they remain unconvinced, and critics have decried the move as the latest government-sponsored machination targeted at muffling the voice of dissent and opposition as national elections approach. They tether the development to a repressive regime.

In truth, the recently announced licensing requirement which affects live social media broadcasts is in keeping with similar moves that have suppressed social media usage in Uganda in the recent past.

Ugandans currently pay an over-the-top (OTT) tax of UGX 200.00 (USD 0.05) daily to access email and social media platforms. The infamous “Social Media Tax,” which came about in 2018, was firmly supported by long-standing President, Yoweri Kaguta Museveni. According to one report, an estimated 5 million Ugandans lost access to the internet thanks to the OTT. 

As of July 2018, GSMA put smartphone adoption in Uganda at 16 percent, much lower than the sub-Saharan African average of 36 percent. Another report has it that only 10.67 million of the country’s 42 million inhabitants are internet users, of which just 2.5 million are social media users.

The latest round of regulation which has, among other things, put red tapes around individual broadcasts via social media, is particularly telling in this time when general elections are just around the corner — especially as the Ugandan Electoral Commission has since released a memo banning traditional open-air campaign rallies with the COVID-19 pandemic in mind. 

That memo has limited the mobilisation efforts of the opposition, who are looking to end President Museveni’s 34-year-long rule, to online platforms where live broadcasts on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram have come in handy, seeing as traditional media is often out of reach.

Bobi Wine, the Ugandan musician that is at the forefront of the current opposition, is known to have spoken of sudden cancellations of scheduled appearances on local radio and television stations.

Under the latest rules, some friction will likely arise in attempting to get the green light from the UCC for political live broadcasts (especially that of the opposition). This is reminiscent of the 2011 episode when opposition figures were barred from using state-owned media channels for election campaigns.

For now, though, it remains unclear how the new rules will be enforced and how defaulters will be punished.

Featured Image Courtesy: perilofafrica.com

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