By Juliet Nanfuka |
Tanzania appears to be steadily sliding into a predator of critical social media users, as state authorities continue to arrest and prosecute users for expressing what many see as legitimate opinions. In recent months, the country’s newly elected government has used a controversial new law to prosecute at least seven social media users, in spite of constitutional guarantees of free speech.
Tanzanian netizens are falling foul of the Cybercrimes Act enacted last year, whose stated goal is “criminalizing offences related to computer systems and Information Communication Technologies”. The law has been used to charge citizens for “publication of false information” in accordance with Section 16 of the Act. It states: “Any person who publishes information, data or facts presented in a picture, text, symbol or any other form in a computer system where such information, data or fact is false, deceptive, misleading or inaccurate commits an offence, and shall on conviction be liable to a fine not less than three million shillings or to imprisonment for a term not less than six months or to both. “
On April 15, 2016 Isaac Habakuk Emily was appeared in court for the publication of false information using a computer system – in this instance Facebook. In a post, Emily referred to President Pombe Magufuli as an imbecile that could not be compared to the country’s founding leader, Julius Nyerere. He appeared in court for insulting the president after his post was reported to the Tanzania Communications Regulatory Authority (TCRA).
See report on State of Internet Freedom in Tanzania 2015
Since the Cybercrimes Act took effect last September, Tanzanian social media users have “gone a little quiet”, according to journalist Joseph Warungu. And for good reason, as Emily is not the first individual against whom the law has been used. In October 2015, Benedict Angelo Ngonyani was charged for “spreading misleading information” after he posted on Facebook that Tanzania’s Chief of Defence Forces, General Davis Mwamunyange, had been hospitalised following food poisoning. In the same month, Sospiter Jonas was charged for posting to Facebook content stating that Tanzanian Prime Minister Mizengo Pinda “will only become a gospel preacher.” The following month, four staff of an opposition party were charged for publishing “inaccurate” election results on Facebook and Twitter.
The stated objective of the Cybercrimes Act was to fight rising incidents of cybercrime such as bank fraud, mobile money theft, phishing attacks, website hacking and spoofing. However, even as it was being debated, human rights defenders warned that the government would use the law to suppress critical voices. As one activist stated, “We usually use various internet platforms to communicate our information—Twitter, Facebook, blogs, SMS, WhatsApp, etc. The use of all these forms will be rendered useless by the Act which in part criminalises transmission of any information deemed misleading, defamatory, false or inaccurate by the government.”
The Cybercrimes Act was reportedly passed in the middle of the night and has been criticised for disregarding press freedom and freedom of expression, granting excessive powers to police, and offering limited protections to ordinary citizens.
Clamping down on social media users is a trend that has been increasingly witnessed in East Africa and beyond. In Kenya, Section 29 of the Kenya Information and Communications Act (2013) has been used to charge up to 10 social media users for “the improper use of a telecommunication system” in 2016 alone. In Uganda, Section 25 of the Computer Misuse Act bears similar language and states, “Any person who willfully and repeatedly uses electronic communication to disturb or attempts to disturb the peace, quiet or right of privacy of any person with no purpose of legitimate communication whether or not a conversation ensues commits a misdemeanor.” In the lead up to the February 2016 general elections, a series of arrest were made which saw social media users charged using this law.
Further afield, South Africa’s Cybercrimes and Cybersecurity Bill (2014) also bears similar vague clauses that muzzle opinion of the media, bloggers and other independent actors that promote freedom of expression and increased state transparency. In Nigeria, the Frivolous Petitions Bill (2015), popularly known as the Social Media Bill, threatens to muzzle public expression online.
The Cybercrimes Act is one of several laws Tanzania enacted in the lead up to the October 2015 general elections despite public outcry that these laws granted excessive powers to the police criminalised expression and access to information, and did not provide clear legal recourse to citizens.
As affronts to citizens’ online rights in Tanzania and other countries continue, self-censorship is likely to prevail which in turn would have a negative impact on citizen participation, transparency and accountability in governance.