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East Africa

Blogging: a one-way ticket to jail in Tanzania

A blog could soon be a source of misery to many people in Tanzania. Oxforddictionaries.com defines a blog as a regularly updated website or web page, typically one run by an individual or a small group.  It contains a writer's or group of writers' own experiences, observations and opinions. Through this content, the blogger interacts with a wide range of people sharing ideas, opinions and even rallying people to causes they hold dear. It is a platform where people express themselves.

Now, this form of free expression is about to be regulated, highly monetised and possibly criminalised by the government of Tanzania thanks to the recently published Electronic and Postal Communications (EPOCA) Online Content Regulations, 2018.

New online content regulation

The Tanzania Communications Regulatory Authority (TCRA), through the 2018 EPOCA Online Content Regulations, requires bloggers, owners of online discussion fora, as well as radio and television streaming services, to register and pay licensing and annual fees of approximately USD 930.

The proposed regulations seem to be expressly designed to cripple rather than facilitate free speech online. For instance, apart from the license fees for online content that have to be renewed every three years, bloggers need to provide information regarding their company details, physical address, shareholding structure, tax registration and citizenship of shareholders/ directors. However, compliance with these requirements is no guarantee that the TCRA will license the applicants.   

Apart from the licensing requirements, the TCRA is equally regulating online content in a rather annoying if not comical manner. If a blogger gets licensed to operate in Tanzania, the license might be revoked or land the blogger in jail for publishing prohibited content. 

This in itself is problematic. It encourages self-censorship and limits free speech. If bloggers thought that working in internet cafes would help address the anonymity concerns, then they are mistaken. The regulations require owners of such cafes to install camera equipment, register users and store the recorded surveillance and user register for 12 months. You just cannot ‘annoy people’ anonymously anymore in Tanzania. And whistle blowing is certainly going to suffer since content providers are also required to have mechanisms in place to identify sources of content.

Overall, the cost of doing business for bloggers, Internet Service Providers (ISPs), Internet Café owners and content providers has gone up. Their client’s privacy, anonymity and freedom to express themselves has in all fairness been abolished. But then, why should these developments concern us?

 

Stifling freedom of expression

Tanzania has been on a downward spiral as far as freedom of expression and freedom of speech are concerned. According to the Freedom House’s Freedom in the World 2018 Report, there has been mounting repression of the opposition, media outlets, and social media users who are critical of the increasingly authoritarian President, John Magufuli. Vocal politicians have been intimidated and some shot; independent media houses like Mawio, Mwanahalisi and Raia Mwema have either been suspended or banned for publishing ‘seditious content’ and ‘insulting the President’; journalists have also been intimidated while non-governmental organisations (NGOs) have been asked to verify their registration status by submitting a series of documents or risk deregistration.

The current EPOCA regulations must be viewed with this context in mind. The Tanzanian government is becoming increasingly repressive and free speech is a casualty of this environment.  Soon there will not be any critical voices in Tanzania if these regulations that limit freedom of expression go unchallenged.

The The International Center for Not-for-Profit Law (ICNL) states that freedom of expression, universally acknowledged as both a fundamental and foundational human right, is not only the cornerstone of democracy, but indispensable to a thriving civil society. The center notes that this freedom is protected by regional and international treaties, charters and frameworks, such as Article 19(2) of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), a formally binding legal treaty ratified by 165 nations including Tanzania.

The ICCPR acknowledges that freedom of expression is not absolute and can be restricted in some circumstances. However, these restrictions must be provided by law that is clear and accessible to everyone and must pursue one of the specific purposes set out in Article 19(3) of the ICCPR. The 2018 EPOCA Online Content Regulations fall short of these minimum standards that would justify limiting freedom of expression. They do not offer adequate safeguards to ensure against interpretive abuse or disproportionate application of the regulations. 

The intention seems rather to be focused on shutting down platforms such as the Jamii Forum that has been instrumental in whistle blowing. It is not just whistle blowing sites that are likely to suffer from these regulations. The growing young, creative and unemployed population in the budding Tanzania blogosphere is likely to be affected too.

Internet freedom is a human right

The TCRA reports that the number of Internet users in Tanzania rose by 16 percent at the end of 2017 to 23 million. Around 19 million Internet users in Tanzania accessed the World Wide Web last year through their mobile phones, up from 18 million in 2016. Overall, Internet penetration in Tanzania increased to 45 percent in 2017 from 40 percent in 2016. In a country of 60 million people, this access level seems low. In fact it can be argued that a large majority of Tanzanians have no access to the Internet.

However, if we look at the transformational potential of the Internet as an alternative to the traditional sources of information the low access narrative becomes a distraction. The increasing penetration though marginal is largely driven by millennials (18-35 years old) who are increasingly using download sites to access video entertainment and social media sites as tools for communication and a source of news and information, according to a GeoPoll rapid survey. In Africa, social network platforms such as Facebook, WhatsApp and Twitter have become an integral part of everyday life of the millennials with over 60 percent using social media as their primary source of information. The same applies to Tanzania. The rise of mobile apps provides opportunities for Tanzania developers to establish new platforms that can connect citizens and promote discussions of critical issues affecting the country. The apps and diverse platforms being developed can be a source of livelihood to a majority of youth in Tanzania. The creativity to harness and amplify voices online and provide alternatives to the already emasculated traditional mass media outlets should be encouraged. Unfortunately, the EPOCA regulations are likely going to be harmful to the information needs of the Tanzanian social media users.    

The Internet is an integral part of our lives. It has greatly improved and expanded ways through which people impart and receive information. We do recognise that some information on the internet can be harmful to the population especially children and need to be moderated. However, the proposed regulations are too punitive and not about protecting the vulnerable but rather punishing and silencing those who dare deviate from and question official narratives in Tanzania. The EPOCA regulations as well as the Tanzania’s Cybercrime’s Act 2015, limits the flow of information online under the pretext of regulating ‘undesired content’. Tanzania seems to have joined the infamous club of countries (Egypt, Russia, Turkey, Iran, Vietnam, India, Venezuela, and Singapore) that are imposing restrictions to freedom of expression in violation of international law especially legal restrictions that attempt to closely control the flow of information online.  Yet this should not be the case.

As a signatory to the ICCPR, Tanzania should domesticate the law and ensure compliance (with the ICCPR) with through submission of progress reports. We urge the Tanzania Government to invite the Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression for a fact finding country visit and implement the recommendations of his report. We also call on the Tanzania civil society to submit shadow reports to the Human Rights Committee (HRC) who review member states compliance with the ICCPR on these and other violations of the ICCPR; and ask the HRC to address the Tanzania situation. Lastly, we urge the Tanzanian government to uphold its citizens’ right to access and share information freely as well protect their privacy online. These regulations do more harm than good to the average Tanzanian seeking to share information.