Is access to the internet a right or a privilege? Autocratic governments see the freedom of speech on the internet as a threat to the regime[i]. Some countries like China and more recently Uganda, have used many controls censure online discussions although, internet access is a fundamental right recognized by the United Nations (UN) since 2012[ii]. Despite this, network communication tools have been significantly restrained by Ugandan’s Communications regulating body. Furthermore, in 2018 the government imposed a new tax of 200 Ugandan shillings (roughly $0,05USD) on social media[iii]. British newspaper The Guardian affirmed that ‘’ millions of [Ugandans]’’ have been forced to quit social media due to this tax[iv]. Presented as a new revenue increase for the benefit of the population, this new fee seems to be another way to control dissident voices online[v]. In addition, as stated by President Museveni the purpose of this tax is to “reduce gossip”[vi]. Nonetheless, according to international law, this tax is tantamount to any other human rights violation.
The legal impact of the social media tax on human rights according to international law can be argued against on the premise of three specific international norms which are; the right to participate in political and social life without any discrimination; the right to access uncensored information; and freedom of assembly.
The right to participate in political and social life without any discrimination is a human right. Uganda has ratified several international treaties that prohibit online censure and promote universal access to the internet[vii]. Among others, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) Article 19 specifies that
‘’Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.”[viii]
Henceforth it is impossible to deny that digital technologies are taking a huge part of the public sphere especially for the spread of democracy. Plebiscite organized by social network gives a voice to the voiceless and dissident ideology. A fortiori, the digital public sphere is an informal tool giving a tribute to average people. During the Arab spring, by example, online conversations played a major role in shaping political debate[ix]. Despite the doubt behind the factual role of social media on the street protest in North Africa and the Middle East, we cannot deny the digital impact on information spreading and the amplifying of contagion[x].
The African Declaration on Internet Rights and Freedoms (ADIRF) article 3 recalls the article19 of the UDHR[xi]. In addition, article 2 of the ADIRF states that
‘’Access to the Internet should be available and affordable to all persons in Africa without discrimination on any ground such as race, color, sex, language, religion, political or other opinions, national or social origin, property, birth or other status’’.[xii]
The ADIRF clearly advocates that internet should be affordable. Thus, a $0,05USD tax might seem low, however 27% of the Ugandan population live on less than $1,25USD per day[xiii]. A large number of this population are excluded from online discussion. Ironically, these less fortunate citizens are marginalized and underrepresented in the political sphere, yet they need to express their dissatisfaction. Among this marginalized population, are Ugandan women, most of whom are involved in ungainful employment[xiv]. According to UNESCO, women and girls are the first victims of economic crisis, lack of information for their well-being and corruption[xv]. Thus, the new network fee is indirect discrimination based on their economic status and is increasing those injustices. Even if this rule applies to everybody the same way, the consequences are worse for certain persons due to their economic status.
Access to uncensored information is a right clearly stipulated in article 9 the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ rights. It states that everyone shall receive information and express their opinion freely[xvi]. Uganda has integrated components of international law like freedom of information (FOI)[xvii] into national laws as enshrined in the Access to Information (ATI) Act and Electronic Media Act (1996). Indeed, Uganda is the first East African country “to enact an FOI law”[xviii] Most significantly, article. 41 (1) of Ugandan’s Constitution stipulates that
‘’Every citizen has a right of access to information in the possession of the State or any other organ or agency of the State except where the release of the information is likely to prejudice the security or sovereignty of the State or interfere with the right to the privacy of any other person’’[xix].
The Access to Information Act (2005) is an offshoot of article 41 of the constitution[xx]. This act has been endorsed to promote transparency of the state and access to the accountability of the government. Although according to Reporters without Borders, the Ugandan press is censured to the point, many people are getting informed through social media platforms like Twitter or Facebook[xxi]. These social media platforms allow average citizens to share their thoughts and their concerns with the online community. In other words, social media is a way to avoid the control of information.
In point of fact, as maintained by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO),
“Noting that greater participation by citizens in democratic processes, the rule of law, the fight against corruption, respect for the separation of powers and the independence of the judiciary, transparency, accountability, access to information, poverty reduction and human rights are key elements of good governance.”[xxii]
Sharing and receiving information freely is fundamental to democratic systems. In fact, real decisions should not be taken without relevant and accurate information. Thus, even dissident voices should have the right to express themselves in public spaces. Evelyn Beatrice Hall as an illustration of Voltaire’s thinking once said, ‘’I disapprove of what you said but I will defend it to death your right to say it’’. Which means, in a democratic regime, the freedom of speech is more important than the homogeneity of the population.
The freedom of assembly and spontaneous gathering is an inalienable right in a democratic society. Article 5 of the ADIRF stipulates
‘’Everyone has the right to use the Internet and digital technologies in relation to freedom of assembly and association, including through social networks and platforms. No restrictions on usage of and access to the Internet and digital technologies in relation to the right to freedom of assembly and association may be imposed unless the restriction is prescribed by law, pursues a legitimate aim as expressly listed under international human rights law (as specified in Principle 3 of this Declaration) and is necessary and proportionate in pursuance of a legitimate aim.”[xxiii]
Thus, it goes without saying that the Ugandan government violates the citizen’s fundamental right to assembly with this tax. By doing so, the government denies pluralistic dialogue. According to the UN Office of the high commissioner (OHCHR), special rapporteur Clément Voule, social media, and other communication technologies are an important tool ‘’of enablement for individuals and groups to organize peaceful assemblies and associate with one another’’[xxiv].
Social media has empowered people by creating opportunities for assembly. Through online communities, individuals find the courage to expose human violation because they feel supported by others[xxv]. Like it is said, ‘unity is strength’’. Following this logic, a social media tax is a good way to shut down a potential protest assembly. Once again, the Egyptian situation during the Arab spring showed how important social media has become in increasing community movements. During that crisis, Hilary Clinton and Barack Obama recognized the freedom to the assembly through social media as a universal right[xxvi]. Because of this tax, the Ugandan population can’t fully enjoy the right to assembly peacefully.
In conclusion, all around the world news is not only delivered by states anymore. Indeed, social media is playing a huge role in spreading information. The new social media tax in Uganda appears to be part of the widespread repression perpetrated by the government. This new measure is against international law and defies among others three fundamental rights recognized by this law including; the right to participate in public life, the right to access information freely and freedom of assembly and gathering peacefully. As largely demonstrated above, access to the internet is a fundamental human right and every Ugandan should have the right to express themselves freely online. Social media gives the impression of a lucid digital platform, it allows people to gather and give a feeling of self-empowerment. In addition, the tax is a violation of multiple international norms ratified by Uganda and is against the Ugandan constitution. And finally based on this argument, one big question still remains, how will the Ugandan Court of law rule on this new unconstitutional measure?
Image credit: https://www.ictworks.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/03/social-media-taxes.jpg
Author: Katerie Lakpa
Alternatives Canada, Fellow at WOUGNET.
[i] Levi Boxel, Zachary Steinert-Threlkeld, (Taxing dissident: The impact of a social media tax in Uganda), Cornell University, September 2019, p.2.
[iii]Levi Boxel, Zachary Steinert-Threlkeld, prec. note 1, p.5.
[iv]Ratcliff, Rebeca, and Okiror, Samuel, Millions of Ugandans quit internet services as a social media tax take effect, The Guardian, February 2019.
[vi]Abdi Latif, Dahir, prec. note 7.
[vii]Oryem, Nyeko, Uganda’s troubling social media tax. prec. note 6.
[viii]Universal Declaration of Human Rights, RES/AG/217A (III), Doc off AG NU (1948), art.19.
[x]Howard, Philip N., Social media and political change: capacity, constraint, and consequence, Journal of communication, Vol. 62, Issue 2, April 2012, p. 365.
[xi]African Declaration on internet rights and freedom, art.3
[xii]African Declaration on internet rights and freedom,art.2
[xiii]Oryem, Nyeko, Uganda’s troubling social media tax. Prec. note 6.
[xiv]Elvis Basude, Women the poorest in Uganda, New Vision, Uganda, March 2013.
[xvi]African Charter on Human right and Peoples’ right, §1 Chap.1 art.9. (1986).
[xvii]United Nations Educational, Specific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), prec. note 18.
[xviii]James, Lowry, Freedom of information and government records in Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda, Archive and manuscript, Vol. 41, 2013, p. 27.
[xix]Constitution of the Republic of Uganda, Chapter 1, art.41(1), 1995
[xx]Access to Information Act, Republic of Uganda, 2005.
[xxiii]African Declaration on internet rights and freedom, art.5
[xxv]Amir, Hatem Ali, The power of social media in developing Nations: New tools for closing the global digital divide and beyond, Harvard Human rights journal, HeinOnline, 2001, P.189.
[xxvi]Amir, Hatem Ali, prec. note 27, P.186.