By Paul Ampurire
There has been too much talk in the last few days about the new taxes on Mobile Money and Social Media which by all means remain very unpopular among the populace.
The resentment towards these levies is vivid, this time not just among the ‘elite’ and minority online community but also the ordinary Ugandan who carries out their business in downtown Kampala and other parts of the country.
Under the new tax measures, Ugandans who want to access social media platforms; WhatsApp, Facebook, Twitter, Viber, Messenger, Instagram, Skype and the like will have to part with Shs 200 on a daily. The levy also called OTT tax (for Over The Top service) is a direct tax that the user will have to pay independent of the internet data he/she intends to purchase.
For Ugandans (almost every Ugandan that owns a mobile phone) who send or receive money through the Mobile Money system, a tax of 0.5% will be charged on sending and withdrawing of money.
Aside the demerits of having access to social media taxed, it is the inconvenience that the payment of this tax is made that to me should be cause for serious concern.
By design, a mobile phone user must have money on their mobile money account for them to pay the OTT tax. If your Mobile Money account balance is zero, but you have airtime credit on your phone, you wont access social media. This is a very big inconvenience whichever way you choose to look at it.
Why? Because a low income earner who affords to pay Shs 200 for social media can not deposit Shs 200 on their mobile phone. Simply because Mobile Money agents only allow for a minimum amount of money if an individual is depositing on their Mobile Money account.
An MTN agent I spoke to told me she only accepts deposits that don’t go below Shs 5,000. And for some agents, this sums goes as high as Shs 6,000. While this isn’t a threshold set by MTN, agents say carrying out transactions below this sum eats into the commission the telco pays them.
That implies that one can not simply deposit Shs 200 or Shs 1,400 (weekly tax) on their Mobile Money, if that’s all they can afford. It must be Shs 5,000 and above. It also means one must at all times have credit on their Mobile Money which is not possible for everyone. Why can’t I pay the tax using my airtime?
It is this inconvenience that forms the basis for my primary concern regarding the OTT tax. Part of its negative impact is certainly going to manifest itself in the online media space and the advent of citizen journalism that was born out of the social media boom.
When social media platforms emerged, they significantly changed the dymamics of journalism and traditional media. The platforms gave power to every user to communicate and inform. The idea that everyone wherever they are can post about happenings which the rest didn’t know about was revolutionary. And such happenings also comprise of news events.
One does not need to be a professional news reporter to take a photo of floods that have ravaged a village, robbers in the middle of a heist or a motor accident that occurred somewhere. All these three events are newsworthy. And the mere fact that this individual is conveniently in that place at that particular time, in the absence of a journalist, gives them the power to break this news story by posting such occurrences on his/her Facebook page or Twitter.
And hopefully, the people that follow this individual will share the information widely and the mainstream media will pick it up, verify it and publish/broadcast it.
Recently when former Arua Municipality MP, the late Ibrahim Abiriga was assassinated in Kawanda, near the capital city Kampala, it was the onlookers who first posted photos on social media reporting about a shoot out. And this is what informed the response of the media and Police to rush to the scene. There have been hundreds of other news incidents captured by ordinary Ugandans.
That’s how much social media influences the news today. Therefore, if somebody in Kisoro or Yumbe had an opportunity to share such a happening but unfortunately it so happens that he/she has not paid their OTT tax, either because they don’t afford it or their Mobile Money balance is zero, mainstream media will definitely lose that story. If there was a life at stake, counting on emergency response, that life will be lost.
I don’t think the proponents of this tax have assessed the danger in this inconvenience to information access which by the way is a Constitutional right to every Ugandan. The President argues that social media is a recipe for fake news, ‘lugambo’ (gossip) and propaganda, which is true. Most if not all the things considered as dangerous today were at some point the best inventions to solve a problem. Social media is not isolated. But I personally don’t think its ills outweigh the goods.
I have heard some government officials including the Minister of ICT and State Minister for Planning argue that Shs 200 is not too much money. They would be right only if Ugandans were not already victims of the thuggery that most of the telcos continue to commit with impunity.
Many Ugandans are already at the pains of being cheated of their data but have no choice but to sacrifice. Why doesn’t government (Uganda Communications Commission) start by taking its regulatory role seriously to crack the whip on thieving telcos so we can see if it could generate more revenue from the data Ugandans purchase. So, yes, Shs 200 is reasonable tax IF either internet in Uganda is affordable or we have exhausted all the other options.
While on one hand we are going to lose potential news sources, on the other hand, media outlests whose content rides on online audience will definitely lose a portion of their readership. For the same reasons – unaffordable tax or inconvenience in paying this tax.
The writer is journalist and blogger