13 April 2018

Tanzania: Free Press, Freedom of Expression and an Open Internet Are Now in Tanzania's Past

Photo: Committee to Protect Journalists
(file photo).

The Tanzanian regulation known as the Electronic and Postal Communications (Online Content) Regulations 2017, which will govern social media and blogging in that country, has been signed into law.

According to reports, Tanzania has finally signed into law a controversial and slightly absurd new regulation to govern social media and blogging. The regulation, known as the Electronic and Postal Communications (Online Content) Regulations 2017, was initially published by the Tanzania Communications Regulatory Authority (TCRA) and came into effect in March 2018. The regulation is set to give the government unfettered powers to police the web.

The regulation includes interesting laws such as:

- A licence fee charge for Tanzanians operating online radio stations and video (TV) websites.

- Application for licences to blog to be submitted to the TCRA

- Aside from registration fees and license application fees, online stations, websites and bloggers will be required to pay an annual fee as well.

In addition:

- Everyone in Tanzania will be required to have a password (PIN) on their mobile phones. Failure to comply will result in a fine of more than 5 million Tanzanian Shillings (about US$2,000) or even 12 months imprisonment, or both, depending on what the court decides.

- Internet cafés are expected to install surveillance cameras to record and archive activities inside their business premises.

Given the stipulated fees needed to even run a simple personal text blog if you live in Tanzania, you would have to spend an initial (approximately) US$900 in license fees. On top of these exorbitant costs, to receive authorisation as an online content provider, applicants are expected to complete a form detailing the estimated cost of investment, the number of directors and stakeholders in the platform, their share of capital, staff qualifications, expected dates of commencing operations, and future growth plans.

However, even with this exhaustive documentation, authorities still reserve the right to revoke a permit if a site publishes content that "causes annoyance, threatens harm or evil, encourages or incites crimes" or jeopardizes "national security or public health and safety". Officials can even go so far as to force managers to remove "prohibited content" within 12 hours or face fines of not less than 5 million shillings (US$2,210), or a year in prison.

Despite TCRA holding public forums to discuss the draft document - where stakeholders are reported to have raised objections - Dr Harrison Mwakyembe, Tanzania's Minister for Information, Culture, Arts and Sports, went on to sign the regulations into law.

Observers and activists argued that some of the law's definitions and wording were ambiguous, violated individual privacy, curtailed citizen's right to free speech and expression, and went against the spirit of an open Internet.

The passing of this law is a culmination of the clampdown by the government of President John Magufuli on media outlets and social media use in the country, which has been one of the president's aims since he entered power. His administration has tightened its grip on both digital and traditional media spaces. They even banned newspapers from reporting on misconduct in the mining sector, radio stations have been closed for broadcasting "seditious" material, and online platforms like Jamii Forums have been targeted for investigating government corruption.

A statement by Tanzania's Information, Sports and Culture Minister, Harrison Mwakyembe, imposed a 24-month ban on Mawio, a privately owned weekly newspaper, accusing it of contravening a state directive and the Media Services Act by publishing pictures of two former presidents on the front page and writing a story allegedly linking them to mining investigations in 2017.

Angela Quintal, Africa programme director for the Committee to Protect Journalists, told Quartz, "The registration requirements and the fees are likely to be a heavy burden for most bloggers and small-sized outlets streaming content in Tanzania, thereby reducing diversity in the media space."

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