Amid a second wave of COVID-19 infections and low vaccine access in Uganda, the country has imposed a nationwide lockdown ending July 30 that has pushed nearly all activities online.
Now, since July 1, the government has introduced a 12% tax on Internet data that is constraining church members’ ability to access online worship at a time when physical gatherings are banned.
When Uganda’s President Yoweri Museveni closed churches June 18, he advised religious institutions to switch to online worship, reasoning that God is everywhere.
Internet data is already expensive in Uganda, even compared to surrounding countries. Uganda’s telecom regulator, the Uganda Communications Commission, fixes the price to acquire one gigabyte at $2.67, higher than regulators in Kenya ($2.41), Tanzania ($2.18) and Rwanda ($2.18). These prices don’t include the new 12% tax.
Only an estimated 26% of the Ugandan population accesses the Internet, even before the tax was introduced. Already, Ugandans are finding it hard to live under the lockdown, and many families say they cannot eat regular meals.
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How churches are coping
The Rev. Dr. Grace Lubaale, a priest at the Anglican Church of the Resurrection in Kampala, said that the Internet tax is not essential now because it will push away people from attending online church services, denying them access to God and community in a time of need.
At his church, Lubaale said they use Facebook, WhatsApp and Zoom, plus phone calls and text messages to reach their worshippers, arguing that no method is more effective than the physical church. Facebook was banned in Uganda just before the general election, with the government accusing the social media giant of alienating supporters of the ruling government.
However, Facebook maintained that the accounts they had blocked were of people who breached their code of ethics. The ban remains today. While using Facebook is now illegal in Uganda, many people including government officials and church leaders still illegally access it through VPNs.
Omega Healing Centre lead pastor Michael Kyazze advised the government to either suspend the tax during the period of the lockdown or scrap it completely. Kyazze noted that due to the high taxes on the Internet, the clergy in Uganda cannot spend long hours preaching to their flock.
“Since you run the church online, you just stop at highlighting the issues of the day, to save some data and then ask the flock to do personal research, to understand the subject at hand,” Kyazze said.
Similarly, Mukono Anglican Diocesan Bishop James William Sebaggala noted that the church has been using social media to promote COVID-19 Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs), which efforts are now being threatened by the new tax. “Some countries have instead waived certain taxes for their people during the lockdown and Uganda can emulate them,” Sebaggala said.
Prof. Augustus Nuwagaba, an international consultant on economic transformation, advised the government to tax commercial farmers and the informal sector, entities he said are currently not taxed, instead of adding more taxes on access to Internet.
“If you increase tax on Internet data, you are widening the digital divide,” Nuwagaba noted. “Government needs money, but should find a way of expanding the tax base without disrupting other critical programs.”
Internet tax intended to ‘silence dissent’
By the end of 2020, a quarter of Uganda’s population was living below the poverty line. The Ugandan government estimates 2.6 million more Ugandans will fall under the poverty line this year, and the Ministry of Finance reduced its economic growth projection for the year from 6% to 4%.
When the Internet tax passed in Uganda’s parliament in April, Dorothy Mukasa, the chief executive of Unwanted Witness, a digital communications rights watchdog, said the move would not only make Internet in the country unaffordable, but also affect the country’s investment environment.
“Internet has been a factor of production…. for any investor to make investment decisions, they have to make sure there’s good Internet connectivity for them to be able to function,” she said.
Lubaale, a senior lecturer at Kyambogo University in Uganda, said that “governments introduce new taxes to widen their revenue base because that becomes their strength. But when taxing citizens, there are things governments must consider, such as the principle of urgency, importance and essence.”
Bishop Sebaggala said that by introducing the tax, the government of Uganda was shooting itself in the foot. “The tax discourages Ugandans from using new information and communications technologies, which the government has been promoting,” he said.
Pastor Joseph Kabuleta of Watchman Ministries International and a former presidential candidate in the 2021 general election, however, thinks the new tax is a political tool to silence dissent. He said that the tax is intended to muzzle bloggers of opposition parties and social media influencers.
“Internet is already expensive in Uganda,” he said. “The tax is a double tragedy for the faithful who can’t move because of the lockdown and at the same time won’t be able to use the high-cost Internet to communicate.”
He urged the Ugandan government to encourage its people to do online business by reducing Internet costs, advising the government to tax people’s business profits instead.
Despite harms to citizens, government defends tax
The spokesperson of Uganda’s Ministry of Finance and Economic Planning, Jim Mugunga, said that the government cannot scrap the new tax because some people are against it.
“Taxes are never popular, but necessary for governments to raise revenue, in order to serve the people,” he said. “The government followed all the necessary procedures of introducing a tax, including involving a wide section of the public, such as professionals and manufacturers, to discuss it before Parliament passed it.”
Mugunga noted that at the moment, the public can only engage the government on when the new tax can be rolled out, but not to scrap it.
The Internet tax comes on the backdrop of the highly unpopular Over The Top (OTT) tax that the Ugandan government introduced in 2018. The OTT tax, which was targeting social media users, however, was avoided by some people who opted to use the Virtual Private Network, to access social media.
The Ugandan government has now dropped the OTT tax, replacing it with the Internet tax, which is charged directly on the data bundles that people buy to catch those who were circumventing paying OTT.
This story was originally published by Religion Unplugged.
John Semakula is a correspondent for Religion Unplugged based in Kampala, Uganda. He also reports for New Vision, Uganda’s leading daily newspaper.