Outrage as Tanzania Passes Law That Could Imprison Bloggers
Bloggers, Internet users, journalists and activists in Tanzania are up in arms following a government directive that could land them in jail. In a directive issued on June 11, the Tanzanian government now wants all websites, blogs and online forums to register with the government by June 15.
Through parliamentary legislation in March 2018, the John Magufuli-led administration of Tanzania passed the Electronic and Postal Communications (Online Content) Regulations Act, which would seek control over the Internet, social media and the content shared therein. This was met with a lot of criticism and opposition from people across the country who called for press freedom.
Tanzania Media Law – Register or Go to Jail
As is provided in the new regulation, Internet users will now be stripped of their anonymity as websites will be required to have a mechanism of fully identifying all visitors. Cyber cafés will also be required to store user logs for one year. While trying to enforce these regulations, the Tanzania government, through the Tanzania Communications Regulatory Authority (TCRA), has directed all blogs and websites to register. Failing to comply attracts a fine of up to $2200, one year in jail or both.
The directive has caused a massive uproar and attracted the interest of press freedom activists such as the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ). The CPJ has called on the Tanzanian government to rescind these regulations and instead promote online media, journalism and press freedom.
“We urge authorities to scrap these problematic regulations and allow the free press to thrive online,” said CPJ through its Africa Coordinator Angela Quintal. The organization further sees the regulations as “retrogressive and erodes online media in Tanzania and beyond.”
In response, the Tanzania authorities have said the regulations are not ill-intentioned but are instead intended to help recognize content providers; 50 of them already successfully registered. The government argues the new law will prevent malicious behavior on the internet, such as spreading hate messages, by making it now illegal to hide under a veil of anonymity.
Activists have not bought into the government’s narrative, because the new law also gives the government the power of deciding what is good and what should be prohibited, an event that could drastically curtail freedom of expression, especially when castigating the government. The government can force websites to take down “prohibited” content, broadly defined to include material that “causes annoyance,” as reported by the Daily Nation.
Tanzania Media Service Act
This is not the first time the Tanzanian government has come under the spotlight for interfering with press freedom. In 2016, a controversial Tanzania Media Service Act was passed using a government argument that it was necessary for easing access to information but it effectively regulated the media.
The act gave the Minister for Information power to imprison anyone for three to five years and/or fine them up to $2,240-8,970 “for intentionally publishing information that threatens the national defense, public safety, public order, or the economy or that injures the ‘reputation, rights and freedom of other persons.'”
Tanzania also has a Cyber Crimes Act which is similarly used to arrest dissenting journalists and citizens. Some crimes people have been arrested for include, “wrongly translat(ing) a tourist’s comments in a video he posted on Facebook” and for “allegedly insult(ing) President Magufuli in a Whatsapp message. Police declined to reveal the content of the message he was accused of sending.”
Uganda Whatsapp Tax
As Tanzanians grapple with these laws, the neighboring Ugandans are preparing to start paying a $0.05 daily tax for using Internet messaging platforms, such as Whatsapp, Facebook and others. The law, which was passed in May and is expected to be effective from July 1, will see the 17 million Internet users in Uganda pay a tax that will be channeled towards curbing “Internet gossip.”
Media Freedom in Africa Not Great
In 2017, Kerry Paterson, advocacy manager for the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), stated that press freedom in Africa was “not great” in an interview with Deutsche Welle.
“Over the past couple of years there are many countries which have frequently been poor performers when it comes to protecting press freedom, but within the last year or two we’ve really seen some slipping in the countries that have traditionally been quite good on press freedom on the continent, countries like Ghana, Kenya, or South Africa. We’ve seen a real slip backwards from countries that used to be continental leaders,” said Paterson.
Paterson went on to add that U.S. President Trump’s criticism of the press in the U.S. was “troubling” because it sends a message that it’s okay to “dismiss news you don’t like as being fake.”
“By no means are our concerns on press freedom limited to Africa. We see issues of surveillance and attacks on the press in Britain, in France, in America, in Canada. We’re seeing a real clampdown on freedoms that shouldn’t be taken for granted, but has been taken for granted in those countries,” Paterson added.