Freedom of expression in Tanzania is on a downward spiral

Image courtesy Ameya Nagarajan

In Tanzania, freedom of expression is a right of every citizen as enshrined in Section 18 (1) of the constitution. This inalienable right has, however, been undermined by the continuous passing and enacting of a series of repressive regulations over the years.

The passing of the Tanzania Cybercrimes Act of 2015 drew sharp criticism from digital rights stakeholders. The stakeholders felt that the law would be used by state actors to muzzle the right to freedom of expression online. Rightly so, it didn’t take long before five Tanzanians were separately charged with insulting the late President John Magufuli on social media (WhatsApp and Facebook) in 2016. The law was enforced again in 2021 when four people were arrested on allegations of spreading false reports on social media that claimed that President John Magufuli was seriously ill.

In 2020, the then Tanzanian Information Minister Harrison Mwakyembe signed into law the Electronic and Postal Communications – EPOCA (Online Content) Regulations 2020. These online content regulations effectively grant state actors the right to police the internet and social media interactions. The regulation criminalises the posting of rumours and or items that scorn, abuse or harm the status and image of Tanzania (the United Republic) on social media platforms. According to the regulation, any platform hosting such prohibited content shall, upon being issued notice, be required to inform its subscriber to remove the said content within a stipulated time frame of two hours. This requirement passes the onus of liability to platforms, forcing them to proactively monitor their users’ content, and act promptly to filter and or remove posts that may get the platforms in trouble with the state.

In a BBC interview in 2021, President Samia Suluhu echoed statements she had made early in the year — that she was “open to criticism online.” She mentioned that criticism was “vital in helping the government know people’s thoughts, and therefore, it wasn’t necessary to ban it.” Despite the rhetoric, under her presidency, however, little has changed regarding internet freedom in Tanzania. Repressive laws that were enacted by her predecessor are still intact, and Suluhu’s regime has picked up from where her predecessor left off: cracking down on critics. Barely a month after President Suluhu’s assurance on freedom of expression, the Minister of Internal Affairs, George Simbachawene, issued a statement stating that Tanzania intended to put in place a “system to control” ongoing discussions on social networks, and to take action against all those who abuse Facebook, Instagram and Twitter Spaces. The minister’s remarks were met with opposition from a university don and human rights activist, Dr. Christopher Cyrilo. In his statement on Twitter, Cyrilo criticised the minister’s remarks, citing that such actions would bring back the infamous state abductions and trumped up charges on dissenting voices. This response culminated in Cyrilo’s arrest. He was released 72 hours later following a public outcry.

In the same year, Tanzania police detained cartoonist Opptertus Fwema, his brother Florence Fwema, and Robert Mwampembwa, the head of the Creative Industry Network, a Tanzanian-registered body that works to champion creative sector issues on policy, education, gender, infrastructure, and freedom of art. The police alleged that Fwema was being investigated for cybercrime offences. The cartoonist was arrested just days after publishing on his Instagram page a political caricature that was perceived by the police to be demeaning the president. The caricature portrayed President Suluhu as a weak president being protected by former president Jakaya Mrisho Kikwete. Following his arrest, the cartoonist’s Instagram page mysteriously disappeared. 

In May 2022, activist Abubakar Fambo, the chair to Umoja wa Kudai Katiba Mpya Tanzania (UKUKAMTA), a movement advocating for a new constitution, was abducted by unknown assailants believed to be state police. Fambo is renowned for agitating for constitutional reforms. His abduction drew ire from the public, who pushed for his release on Twitter under the hashtag #FreeFambo. In August of the same year, Jonas Afumwisye, a Tanzania Railways Corporation (TRC) regional manager was fired and then arrested by the police in Dar es Salaam. Afumwisye had opposed the newly imposed mobile money transaction levies by the Tanzanian government. He is said to have published his views in a WhatsApp group. Further, in a dismissal letter that was shared online, he was accused of: opposing the government’s vaccination efforts on disease outbreaks in the country, and defaming President Suluhu and the Speaker of Tanzania’s Parliament, Dr. Tulia Ackson, in his social media posts (The said posts are not publicly available).

In yet another digital authoritarian incident, Zama Mpya online TV was in September 2022 fined TZS 2 million (USD 800) by the Tanzania Communications Regulatory Authority (TCRA) Content Committee, for publishing a famous Tanzanian artiste Afande Sele’s comments, regarding the exorbitant mobile transaction fees imposed by the government on its citizens. Sele had said that the levies were not justified and that the government ought to have taxed members of parliament instead, since they do not pay taxes. The fine forced the online platform to resort to a social media fundraiser, where it urged followers and supporters to donate towards the fees imposed by TCRA. Before this penalty by TCRA, Zama Mpya TV had, in May, been summoned by Nape Nnauye, the ICT Minister. Nnauye was incensed following the platform’s report citing the increased cost of internet data plans, a report he felt was utter falsehood.

The government doubled down on this trend when, in October, a resident magistrate’s court in Tanzania’s Simiyu region sentenced Levinus Kidanabi, a youth cadre of the ruling party CCM, to seven years in prison, and a fine of TZS 10 million (USD 4000), for defaming the President of the Republic of Tanzania on a WhatsApp group. According to the magistrate’s ruling, Kidanabi contravened the Cyber ​​Crimes Act of 2015 by peddling falsehoods. Kidanabi was also fined TZS million for impersonation. He was in possession of a SIM card not registered in his name, contrary to the EPOCA Regulations 2020.

These select incidents illustrate how the various newly enacted and or enforced existing laws enable the Tanzanian government to police social media and curtail the right to freedom of expression of Tanzanians, an absolute violation of Section 18 of the Tanzanian Constitution, and Article 19 of The Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Please visit the project page for more pieces from the Unfreedom Monitor.

 

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