By Lillian Nalwoga
Tanzanian citizens are increasingly using social media networks to share information and, to a lesser extent, demand more transparency in the conduct of public affairs. But there are concerns about the apparent intolerance by Tanzanian authorities of online activity deemed critical of the government.
For over 40 years, Tanzania under the Chama Cha Mapinduzi (CCM) party has enjoyed political stability and national unity more than most of the country’s neighbours. However, the October 2010 election won by incumbent president Jakaya Kikwete saw CCM’s popularity slide from 80.2% of the vote in December 2005 to 61.2%.
This decline seems to have brought with it a worrying intolerance for critical media, both online and offline. Journalists have been intimidated and harassed by state officials for questioning the government’s democratic credentials. Some political and social demonstrations have been repressed. To fight this new authoritarianism, several Tanzanians, including politicians, have resorted to social media to express their views.
The country has laws that seem to improve citizens’ rights to information and the freedom of expression, parts of the legislation are restrictive. Article 18 of the Tanzanian Constitution for instance guarantees the right to freedom of expression, and to seek, receive and impart information. These constitutional guarantees are insufficiently implemented in the Tanzanian domestic legislation. Besides, the government has been implicated in attempts to block websites and weblogs whose content it perceives as a threat.
Despite the above scenario, Tanzanian web forums such as Jamiiforums serve as citizens’ channels to comment on key issues such as corruption. The website editors have been interrogated on numerous occasions over issues that government has considered sensitive information. Unconfirmed reports have also surfaced that the Tanzanian government is attempting to clone these forums to portray information that befits it.
Social media has also played a part in sharing vital information about sensitive topics in Tanzania. Such a case was the Gongo la Mboto blasts that killed over 20 people and injured at least 184 people in the Dar es Salaam army base in February 2011.
Although army officials declined to discuss the cause of the blasts, netizens captured events of the blasts by uploading and sharing photos of victims. Tanzanian twitters using #BombsInDar shared information about the possible causes of the blast while calling on government to investigate their cause. The netizens demanded the resignation of the Minister of Defence, a call supported by the country’s opposition.
This rise in use of social media can perhaps be attributed to the growth in internet penetration from 5% in 2005 to 11% in June 2010 (Tanzania Communications Regulatory Authority statistics). In addition, there are 21 million mobile phone subscribers.
The Tanzania government needs to make information more accessible to the public for transparency and accountability, as well as to invest in infrastructure, literacy, policy and regulatory frameworks to boost internet usage in empowering citizens.
By Lillian Nalwoga