Internet Censorship in Tanzania: A Gentle Lift?

Informer

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Jul 29, 2006
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In 2020, Tanzania ranked as position 124 out of 180 countries in the World Press Freedom Index. In 2019, it was position 118 out of 180, which is 93 positions down, compared to 2018. Tanzania has witnessed a consecutive fall in the Index each year since 2016. The article “Bulldozing the Media” by Reporters without Boarders for Freedom of Information attributes this drop to “adoption of draconian legislations; the closure of media outlets and the expulsion of Press Freedom defenders; and the former president not tolerating any form of criticism. In the past 7 years, Tanzania has witnessed many abductions and disappearance of journalists and police officers interrupting social gatherings hosted by the opposition party or human rights defenders.” This has acted as a deterrent measure to journalists, human rights activists and the citizens at large from expressing their opinions.

Throughout the electioneering period in 2020, freedom of expression for journalists and access to information by the citizens was a major concern to Tanzanian citizens. The heightened internet censorship was a major concern. At the onset of the electioneering period, internet was throttled slowing down access to online platforms where citizens could disseminate and access information. This culminated in a total shut down from the day citizens were casting their ballots and continued way after the former president was sworn in. This situation was allegedly manipulated by state agencies, however the communications authority in the country never responded to these allegations.

Civil society organizations including Protection International Africa, Tanzania Human Rights Defenders Coalition and Zaina Foundation Tanzania have identified gaps in digital security management among journalists and Human Rights defenders in Tanzania and embarked on a journey to build their capacities in digital security management in the years 2020 and 2021.

In this post, we take a closer look at how internet access has impacted human rights, curtailed freedom of expression and interfered with the security of human rights defenders for the last six months (October 2020 to April 2021), making digital security management an increasingly difficult and expensive process.

Graphical fluctuation in words

Human rights activists and journalists working on digital platforms have found it difficult to reach their audience given the restrictive laws governing the use of online platforms. Tanzania's internet and digital platforms access has been disrupted between October 2020 to April 2021. This has resulted in loss of income for journalists, arbitrary arrests, and frustration through judicial process for human rights defenders and fear of expression across the entire citizenry. The shutdown started just before Tanzania's presidential elections. This made it difficult for Tanzanians to access digital platforms. Where access to digital platforms was possible, draconian laws such as the Media Services Act, Cyber Crimes Act, Online Content Regulations, Electronic & Postal Communications (Sim Card Registration) Regulations, 2020 continued to make dissemination and access of information through the internet an almost impossible task.

The perpetual internet shutdown and access to minimum information by the citizens has enabled the government to implement laws that facilitate internet censorship in Tanzania, the climax being the amendment of the Electronic and Postal Communications (Online Content) Regulations of 2020. This law not only interferes with Tanzanians’ freedom of expression but also restricts their access to information and interferes with their right to privacy. Other than violating the citizens’ rights, the law enables the government to profit through slapping users with unacceptable fines for acting against this law further entrenching online censorship and control.

It is alleged that in October 2020, the Tanzania Communications Regulatory Authority (TCRA) blocked access to Twitter, leaving millions of Tanzanians with limited access to this platform. This hindered effective communication and access to information. The blockage was further escalated by the limited access to the short messaging services (SMS) and voice messages, Tanzanians could only access twitter while using Virtual Private Networks (VPNs), whose use was subsequently banned by the government.

Between January and March 2021, TCRA issued two major announcements, which pointed to its intent to further, curtail freedom of expression. The first announcement was on the cessation in issuance of license to online content providers such as Blogs and Online Television effective 28 January to 30 June 2021, citing violations of the license conditions by already existing licensees. During the cessation, TCRA would evaluate the existing gaps that lead to breaching of licensing conditions and review them to seal the gaps. Depending on the outcome, licensing may resume. This is an infringement on the constitutional guaranteed freedom of expression. The second announcement was on TCRA’s intent to start charging WhatsApp calls in Tanzania citing drop in revenue from international calls. However, given the past actions of the authority this looks like another strategy to increase the cost of communication thus denying most Tanzanians the opportunity to communicate due to the exorbitant fees charged on various communication platforms.

Moreover, this incident occurred concurrently with the increase of mobile internet rates. Consumers raised an alarm over the huge rise on internet costs announced by all telecommunication companies.

Impacts of limited access to information online.

Tanzania is one among the countries in Africa that uses internet disruption as a weapon against citizens and opposition parties mostly during the electioneering period. The suspension of internet access and unjustifiable increase of the cost of accessing internet services is a violation of fundamental human rights, including freedom of expression and access to information. AccessNow a prominent stakeholder in internet access documented several testimonies of Tanzanian HRDs that faced direct negative impact of internet shut down. The report highlighted the impact of internet shutdowns on people’s lives, work, education, business, and relationships.

Tanzania is however not the first country in the Sub-Saharan Africa to experience internet shutdown initiated by the state. Other countries including Chad, Ethiopia, Sudan, Guinea, Burundi, and Togo have experienced the same. Research by scholars revealed that Sub-Saharan Africa countries have lost $237.4 million to Internet censorship in 2020.

What is Happening Now?

Since her ascension to the President’s office, Her Excellency Samia Suluhu’s government has been seen to make efforts to right the wrongs of the former leadership. Under her directive, TCRA collaborated with all stakeholders in the communication industry including the public to identify possible solutions to the pricing of internet bundles. Since April 2021, there has been a steady decline on the internet cost. This was after telecommunication companies were directed to revise the rates.

There is need to ensure that Tanzanians enjoy freedom of expression and other fundamental rights including digital rights. To effectively correct the wrongs of the previous regime Tanzania must begin by repealing several laws. Most of the laws and regulations enacted from 2015 onwards have not only strengthened the government’s ability to censor the internet but have also paved way for the country to become a surveillance state. The ongoing monitoring and tracking of what people say online, penalizing those who speak out and arresting of online activists is the greatest downfall of freedom of expression in Tanzania.

Protection International Africa calls upon Hon. Samia Suluhu Hassan’s government, through its bodies (TCRA, and Ministry of Information, Culture, and Sports) to amend all draconian laws and regulations that oppresses the rights to access and dissemination of information.

This is a clarion call to all HRDs to join hands in speaking out against further entrenchment of internet censorship in Tanzania.
 

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