Government has been asked to waive off the “over-the-top” (OTT) tax, commonly known as the social media tax to ease communication and access to information during the Corona Virus (COVID-19) outbreak.
On Wednesday, March 18, 2020, President Yoweri Museveni ordered for the closure of universities, schools and suspended all religious gatherings across the country in an attempt to prevent the spread of coronavirus.
As a result, several religious entities have resorted to using digital technologies and tools such as Facebook, Whatsapp, Twitter and You-Tube among other social media tools, as a way of engaging their audiences.
However, there is much fear that a large section of the population is likely to be kept in the dark, due to accessibility of information, as a result of OTT levy, introduced in July 2018.
The Presiding Bishop of the Evangelical Orthodox Church in Uganda (EOC), the Most Reverend Jacinto Kibuuka announced that they had suspended the physical gatherings in favour of virtual, cum-new spaces for ministry outreaches.
According to Bishop Kibuuka, the faithful’s will be able to follow Divine Liturgies via Facebook streamline and other social media platforms at 12pm every Sunday and 5:00 pm on Wednesdays. Also to be streamlined live will be the Holy Rosary through Mamre YouTube Channel and on Facebook.
“We pledge to record daily devotion prayers and circulate them on Mamre Social Media platforms especially; Facebook, Whatsapp, Twitter, and YouTube Accounts which use as a family to share the message of God,” Bishop Kibuuka observes.
The Orthodox Church in Uganda has asked its faithful’s to pay offertories and tithe as well as any church contributions through the bank accounts and mobile money.
Bishop Kibuuka appealed to government to suspend the tax on social media, to allow their faithful’s access the messages without restrictions.
Kibuuka says the government should waive off OTT for the sake of the gospel and fellowship and spirituality of the nation.
Human rights lawyer Eron Kiiza and managing partner at Kiiza & Mugisha Advocates say the government should come forward and make sure that services such as communication are free.
He says the COVID19 crisis shifts certain services such as public health communication and promotion, to digital spaces, which are currently being taxed.
He observes that if the government doesn’t respond quickly by halting the tax, it is likely to eliminate the unemployed, students, and other vulnerable as well as relatively poor members of society who simply cannot afford internet costs.
Julius Mukunda, the Executive Director of the Civil Society Budget Advocacy Group (CSBAG) says while he appreciates the government’s move towards ensuring the safety of Ugandans against the Corona Virus, it has not responded to the economic loss.
“What does this lock down mean to our economy? Because there is no way you can separate the economy from the people. Especially the economies like ours where a big majority depend on hand to mouth. If I don’t work today, I might not get the meal tomorrow,” says Mukunda.
According to Mukunda, the government should put in interventions to enable people, laid off during this lock down to survive especially through meeting utilities such as water and electricity bills among other things.
Mukunda wants the government to remove barriers so that citizens are not hard hit by this emergency.
“If I am unable to import goods and services and I had a loan from the bank, and the Bank expects money at the end of the month, I will not be able to pay, even if you took me to court.
Those who can pay, let them pay but those who can’t pay due to the effects of the emergency, why can’t the government give them leeway during the emergency period so that they pay later?” Julius Mukunda, the CSBAG boss.
Ramathan Ggoobi, a policy analyst, researcher and lecturer of economics at Makerere University Business School (MUBS) says the internet is a necessity that should not be having any barriers at all from the government.
He points out that Uganda maintains high costs of the internet which restricts business, interactions and education.
“For example now, they have closed MUBS, I can’t teach and yet I have a computer which is connected to the internet. But then my students of MBA and Bachelor of Commerce are going home. I would have shared some materials through a certain platform and then create sessions when we are all online and then we learn, but the cost they put on these services is too high,” Ggoobi said.
According to Ggoobi COVID- 19 should be a lesson to Ugandan government on its policies such as OTT and mobile money tax.
Kyadondo East MP Robert Kyagulanyi alias Bobi Wine has also said that government should suspend the social media and mobile money taxes for the next 30 days to allow the public transact through those platforms. He says there is for Ugandans to avoid using paper money and to be enabled to access information easily.