July 11, 2018 / 2:28 PM / 3 months ago

Uganda police use teargas to disperse protest against social media taxes

KAMPALA (Reuters) - Police in Uganda fired teargas on Wednesday to disperse a small crowd of protesters demonstrating against new taxes including a levy on access to social media platforms, a police spokesman told Reuters.

Ugandan riot policemen disperse activists led by musician turned politician, Robert Kyagulanyi, during a demonstration against new taxes including a levy on access to social media platforms in Kampala, Uganda July 11, 2018. REUTERS/Newton Nambwaya

Starting with the 2018/19 (July-June) financial year, the government introduced several new taxes and hiked existing ones to try to increase government revenue and finance public infrastructure.

A crowd of about 200 people wearing red T-shirts and shouting “Power! Power” as they marched through downtown Kampala was dispersed after police tried to arrest an independent lawmaker critical of President Yoweri Museveni, a Reuters witness said.

Two of the new taxes, one on access to social media and a second on transactions on Mobile Money, have both stoked widespread outrage from telecom firms’ customers.

A Ugandan journalist uses his camera after riot policemen fired tear gas to disperse activists led by musician turned politician, Robert Kyagulanyi, during a demonstrating against new taxes including a levy on access to social media platforms in Kampala, Uganda July 11, 2018. REUTERS/Newton Nambwaya

Mobile Money is a cell phone-borne service popular in Uganda and across East Africa and is used to transmit cash between individuals and effect payments for goods and services.

Relations between governments and social media companies are widely watched in Africa, where rapidly growing mobile internet connection is hailed by human rights groups as an essential tool of political and economic development.

The Ugandan government blocked access to Facebook, Twitter and WhatsApp during the last general election in 2016, a move used by other entrenched rulers in Africa in response to grassroots movements against them.

Patrick Onyango, deputy spokesman for Police told Reuters security forces used teargas to break up the demonstration.

“We used teargas to disperse their illegal demonstration and we have also arrested three protesters,” he said.

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Onyango said the demonstrators had failed to seek police clearance for the protest.

Ugandan public order management law requires organizers of protests to seek police permission which is often denied.

Under the new tax laws every online Ugandan has to pay 200 shillings ($0.0532) daily to be able to have access on so called over the top (OTT) platforms.

The OTTs targeted by the new tax include Facebook, Twitter, Google Hangouts, YouTube, Skype, Yahoo Messenger, WhatsApp and many others.

Opponents of the tax including Amnesty International have said the tax is a move to limit voices critical of long ruling Museveni on the platforms, disguised as a measure to increase public revenues.

Some Ugandans have also said the tax on mobile money will render use of the service costly, deter customers and kill jobs.

The service employs thousands who work as agents on behalf of the telecom firms.

Reporting by Elias Biryabarema, Editing by William Maclean

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