Addressing The Gender Dynamics of Media Freedom and Journalists’ Safety in Africa

By Juliet Nanfuka |

November 2 marked the International Day to End Impunity for Crimes against Journalists, a  United Nations (UN) recognised day observed annually that serves to draw attention to the level of impunity for crimes against journalists. While impunity for crimes against journalists is high and is a global reality, there is a concerning and continued gender-biased undercurrent that shapes and informs the media landscape in many African countries. As such, some cases of crimes especially against women journalists go unrecognised. The safety of African women journalists is therefore an urgent concern and a key cornerstone of press freedom..

As such, the Collaboration on International ICT Policy in East and Southern Africa (CIPESA) in partnership with the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) has embarked on a multi-country project centred on implementing some of the recommendations of the 2022 report on the State of Media Freedom and Safety of Journalists in Africa

According to the report, while both men and women journalists in Africa are likely to experience trolling, more women have been sexually harassed and threatened. Further, online attacks against women journalists appear to be increasing exponentially and have also moved offline – with potentially deadly consequences. Yet women journalists who experience abuse online rarely seek justice and often struggle to have their complaints taken seriously and properly investigated. 

Illustrative cases include some from Kenya, where in 2018, several women in the media were the target of smear campaigns on social media platforms, through hashtags, photos, and video-edited graphics depicting nude characters. In 2019, a  female journalist’s phone number was publicly shared on Twitter by Julius Malema, the leader of the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) political party in South Africa, which resulted in “an avalanche of racialised and sexist abuse, including rape and death threats.” Although the EFF was sued, and the court found that the party had violated the electoral code by failing to “instruct and take reasonable steps to ensure that their supporters do not harass, intimidate, threaten or abuse journalists and especially women”, the case is a microcosm of what women journalists across the continent experience particularly when reporting on politics.    

More broadly, the media landscape in Africa has become rife with arbitrary censorship, especially on the internet, arrests of journalists on the grounds of combating cybercrime, fake news or terrorism, and acts of violence against media personnel that usually go completely unpunished. Although media plurality has improved dramatically on the continent, the gender dynamics remain ever-present, such as few women holding executive positions in media companies. Meanwhile, the increased reliance on technology has seen the affronts experienced by female journalists transferred online with a bigger impact on the profession, which is forcing some out entirely, silencing others from reporting on critical concerns or encouraging a culture of self-censorship. 

Accordingly, the CIPESA/UNESCO collaboration seeks to create avenues of engagement on these concerns and how they undermine the practice of journalism by women. These will be pursued by a series of inperson meetings revolving around recommendations that emerged from the documentation of media freedom and journalist’s safety in Africa. 

This work builds on earlier interventions by CIPESA including the 2020 Women At Web Uganda (#WomenAtWebUg) Masterclass and Reporting Grant which served to increase the visibility of the dynamics faced by Ugandan women online and improve balance, quality and regularity of reporting. Through the Africa Digital Rights Fund (ADRF), CIPESA supported the Women In Media Initiative Somalia (WIMISOM) in building the digital security skills and knowledge of women journalists (print, broadcast and online) and women-led media organisations in Puntland, Somalia and Somaliland as a means of combating threats against female journalists and their sources. 

In 2022, CIPESA joined the Uganda Media Sector Working Group (UMSWG) in the commemoration of World Press Freedom Day where the theme “Journalism Under Digital Siege” was the focus of deliberation. Discussion at the UMSWF meeting resonated with insights that emerged from research in Namibia. In 2022, the ADRF provided support to the Internet Society – Namibia Chapter to develop a country situational assessment on the state of online violence against girls and women in Namibia. The assessment reaffirmed the experiences of Namibian journalists as similar to those worldwide. It noted that, “where online attacks against women journalists have political motives, where political

actors, extremist networks and partisan media are identified as instigators and amplifiers of online violence against women journalists.”

In May 2023, in recognition of International Women’s Day (IWD), CIPESA hosted a regional webinar titled “Tech4Equality: Advocating for Gender Inclusive ICT Policy and governance” that assembled gender experts from a host of countries including Namibia, Tanzania, Uganda, and Zambia. This was complemented by efforts in Cameroon where CIPESA alongside Civic Watch and DefyHateNow engaged women journalists at a workshop on the opportunities for embracing technology while also being alive to the challenges inherent to journalism in the digital space. 

Meanwhile, gender inequalities, bias and the media have been key points of deliberation at the annual Forum on Internet Freedom in Africa (FIFAfrica) which this year marked a decade. It entailed a workshop in which partners including the National Democratic Institute (NDI), Women of Uganda Network (WOUGNET), Pollicy, AfricTivistes, and Internews presented insights from their work and recommended multi-stakeholder interventions to address online violence against women.

As more women in the media operate in environments rifled with gender-based challenges and threats that stem from deeply ingrained societal norms, collaborative efforts are required for more impactful responses to be reached. This is fundamental as the role of women journalists in shaping narratives and advancing social progress in Africa should be prioritised.

Navigating the Threats To Journalism in Uganda

By Brian Byaruhanga |

Over the years, journalists in Uganda have confronted a relentless tide of harassment, censorship, and physical violence as they diligently performed their duty. As reported by the Press Freedom Index, compiled by the Human Rights Network of Journalists, incidents of violations and abuse against journalists in Uganda have surged over recent years, climbing from 163 in 2018, to 165 in 2019, peaking at 174 in 2020, and 131 violations in 2021, culminating with Uganda dropping 7 (seven) places to 132 out of 180 countries from the 2021 rankings by the Freedom in the World Report in 2022. These transgressions are primarily orchestrated by regulatory authorities and security agencies. While challenges to journalism in Uganda are not novel, the advent of digital transformation and emergent technologies has infused new complexities into the landscape of press freedom and journalism practice in the country.

The ubiquity of digital technology has afforded journalists the ability to disseminate information rapidly. However, this swiftness has ushered in a suite of challenges to the very essence of journalism. It has engendered a proliferation of misinformation and disinformation, the imposition and acceptance of repressive legal frameworks, and the establishment of intricate content moderation systems.

In 2018, the Ugandan government, ostensibly to counteract the spread of what it pejoratively termed “gossip,” levied a tax on social media. This move was interpreted by critics as an effort to curtail freedom of speech and suppress dissenting viewpoints. Though, after years of resistance, this tax was ultimately overturned, it starkly illuminated the strained relationship between the government and the media.

In July 2022, the Computer Misuse (Amendment) Bill was introduced in the Ugandan Parliament, a piece of legislation that later became law. It outlined a fresh set of offenses, subject to punitive penalties of imprisonment and fines. The bill was devised to “prohibit the sending or sharing of information that promotes hate speech” and “provide for the prohibition of sending or sharing false, malicious, and unsolicited information.” It also sought to define and penalize hate speech. 

See this CIPESA analysis of the  Computer Misuse Amendment Bill 2022.

According to the bill, “a person shall not write, send or share any information through a computer, which is likely to ridicule, degrade, or demean another person, group of persons, a tribe, an ethnicity, a religion or gender; create divisions among persons, a tribe, an ethnicity, a religion, or gender; or promote hostility against a person, group of persons, a tribe, an ethnicity, a religion, or gender.”

Less than three months following its introduction, the Ugandan Computer Misuse Amendment Act of 2022 came into force, receiving the presidential assent of H.E Yoweri Kaguta Museveni on October 14, 2022.

These legislative measures appear to cloak attempts at content moderation under the guise of instilling self-censorship and disseminating fear regarding the sharing of information. Moreover, state surveillance emerges as another potent tool wielded against journalists, perpetuating reports of harassment, arrests, and detentions, often facilitated through state-sanctioned surveillance activities. There have also been allegations of the government employing spyware to target journalists and activists.

In the backdrop of the COVID-19 pandemic and the 2021 general elections, the Ugandan government implemented stringent surveillance protocols while intensifying existing restrictions on free expression. This crackdown became particularly conspicuous after a cohort of Ugandan investigative journalists received notifications that their devices had been compromised by Pegasus, a spy software enabling operators to extract messages, photos, emails, record calls, and clandestinely activate microphones and cameras. Notably, this software is attributed to the Israeli spyware firm, NSO Group, which officially supplies the Pegasus software to military, law enforcement, and government intelligence agencies for the purpose of targeting criminals and terrorists. However, multiple reports surfaced indicating the use of the software against politicians, journalists, and activists. Investigative journalist Canary Mugume was among the few who received an alert from Apple, signalling that state-sponsored attackers may be targeting his phone.

The escalating adoption of technologies like artificial intelligence and machine learning also invokes apprehension. While these technologies have the potential to enhance journalistic work, they also harbor the capacity to manipulate information and undermine the credibility of journalists. A notable example is the use of deepfake technology, capable of crafting persuasive yet fabricated videos or audio recordings, employed to discredit journalists and their work.

To address these threats to journalism in Uganda, it is imperative for journalists to embrace digital resilient practices, safeguarding their sources and their work. Additionally, media organizations should make investments in technologies capable of detecting and countering disinformation and misinformation.

The perils of disinformation and misinformation, state surveillance, arbitrary arrests, harassment, and brutality pose substantial challenges to the function of journalists and the role of media in a democratic society. Overcoming these challenges necessitates concerted efforts by journalists, media organizations, governments, civil society, and international entities to champion a free and independent media that effectively serves the public interest.

It is therefore imperative to acknowledge that journalists operate within an ever-evolving media and digital milieu. And proactive measures must be adopted to ensure their digital security through the implementation of appropriate precautions and the ongoing pursuit of the latest security measures. Specifically, journalists must undertake the following steps to safeguard their well-being while executing their professional responsibilities:

Digital Security Training: Journalists should participate in digital security training to acquire knowledge on how to protect themselves and their sources online. These training programs offer guidance on encrypting communications, securing devices, and maintaining anonymity.

Use of Encryption: Journalists should employ encryption tools like Virtual Private Networks (VPNs), encrypted messaging applications, and secure email services to ensure the security of their communications and data, safeguarding them from interception and surveillance.

Secure Data Storage: Journalists should adopt secure data storage practices, including the utilization of encrypted external hard drives, password-protected archives, and encrypted cloud storage services. These measures prevent unauthorized access and data breaches.

Two-Factor Authentication: To fortify their online security, journalists should implement two-factor authentication for their digital accounts. This extra layer of protection safeguards their accounts against unauthorized access.

Caution with Social Media: Journalists must exercise prudence on social media platforms. They should refrain from disseminating sensitive information and limit the extent of personal details shared online, thus mitigating the risk of exposing themselves or their sources to harm.

Practicing Situational Awareness: Maintaining an acute awareness of their surroundings is crucial for journalists, especially when conducting interviews or reporting from the field. This involves steering clear of hazardous areas and being vigilant for potential threats, ensuring their physical safety while pursuing their professional duties.

Use of Secure Networks: Public Wi-Fi networks, often unsecured, are susceptible to interception. Journalists should avoid their use and instead opt for secure networks or establish their own hotspots, reducing the risk of compromising sensitive data.

In navigating the multifaceted threats to journalism in Uganda, journalists must adopt a multifaceted approach encompassing personal digital security measures, collective industry efforts, and international advocacy for press freedom and journalists’ safety. These actions, coupled with unwavering commitment, will enable journalists to continue their indispensable work, promoting transparency, accountability, and democracy, even in the face of mounting challenges in the digital age.

Through the tireless pursuit of these strategies, journalists in Uganda can reinforce their resilience, fortify their commitment to truth-telling, and persevere in upholding the fundamental principles of journalism – principles that serve not only the interests of a free press but also the broader cause of democracy and informed citizenship. In this era of digital transformation, journalism remains an essential pillar of democracy and an indispensable guardian of society’s well-being. In conclusion, navigating the evolving landscape of journalism in Uganda demands not only the adoption of technical safeguards but also unwavering resolve. The challenges faced by journalists serve as a testament to the vitality of their work in safeguarding democratic values. In embracing the digital era, journalists must continue to shine a light on truth, accountability, and justice, thereby preserving the foundations of a vibrant, free, and democratic society.

Confronting the Challenges to Journalism in the Digital Age

By Edrine Wanayama |

Across the world, journalists face daily affronts physically and online for the work they do. Although the proliferation of technology has come with benefits for the practice of journalism, it has also adversely affected the media landscape to the extent that in some countries journalism has come under siege under the digital era. 

Technology has served to enable major shifts in how journalism is practiced, in addition to enhancing freedom of expression and access to information in addition to  complementing the promotion of accountability and transparency. However,  negative aspects such as digital surveillance are endangering the practice of journalism. The use of sophisticated technologies by governments is fuelling rights violations as it is now easier to track, arrest, detain, persecute and prosecute media professionals whose content is deemed unacceptable to the authorities.

This year, World Press Freedom Day (WPFD) was commemorated under the theme ‘Journalism Under Siege and recognised  how recent developments in technological means of monitoring and surveillance impact journalism and freedom of expression.

Digitisation offers several  benefits for the journalism sector, including the pace at which content can be collected and shared across online platforms. However, the risks and harms that come with digitisation, such as the elimination of professional gatekeepers who also uphold journalistic ethics, fabrication of content, falsification of information, misinformation and disinformation, hate speech, and online harassment, have become major threats to the sector.  

While in the pre-Internet world, freedom of expression and privacy were thought to only interact when journalists reported on public figures in the name of the right to know, the rights have become increasingly interdependent. This linkage reflects digital business models and the development of new surveillance technologies and large-scale data collection and retention. The changes pose risks in terms of reprisals against media workers and their sources, thereby affecting the free exercise of journalism, UNESCO

Even though the digital space offers broad opportunities for the practice of the journalism profession, various  countries in Africa have taken systematic steps to limit the enjoyment of freedom in the digital space. Many states across the continent including Egypt, Kenya, Lesotho, Mozambique, Nigeria, Rwanda, Tanzania, Uganda, Zambia, and Zimbabwe have enhanced their surveillance capacities including through enactment of enabling legislation which is often used against state critics and journalists.

Furthermore, mass data collection initiatives such as registration of persons for national identification documents, SIM card registration, voter registration and the creation of interlinked databases by the government for various services, have increased the precision with which state authorities can identify their targets. This is of particular concern for the media and their sources.s.

As such, at the WPFD commemoration in Uganda organised by the Uganda’s Media Sector Working Group (UMSWG) in conjunction with the African Centre for Media Excellence (ACME), the Collaboration on International ICT Policy for East and Southern Africa (CIPESA), the Makerere University Department of Journalism and Communication, the Media Council of Uganda, Uganda Communications Commission, and the Uganda Human Rights Commission, attendees discussed the country’s shrinking digital space, surveillance, arrests and persecution amidst growing digitalisation practices across sectors and the population. 

These concerns were echoed at the Africa Media Convention held  in Arusha, Tanzania around the WPFD and organised by UNESCO and the East Africa Editors’ Guild. The convention discussions were largely informed by a research report by CIPESA and UNESCO on journalism under siege in the digital era. In turn, the discussions resulted in the  Arusha Declaration on Journalism Under Digital Siege, which reaffirms the importance of human rights and freedom of the press and states’ commitments to provide an enabling environment for freedom of expression and the press. 

Journalists should use technology responsibly to guard against counter productivity.  There should be deliberate efforts aimed at guarding against online vices such as disinformation and misinformation, false news and hate speech to ensure reporting events and stories is based on truth and objectivity. 

Similarly, states must take all measures to ensure their compliance with universally recognised human rights standards by repealing all laws, policies and practices that limit journalism practice. They should also progressively enact laws that promote digital rights and freedoms including those of journalists. 

Specifically, recommendations in the 2022 Arusha Declaration on the World Press Freedom Day should be adopted by states, media, civil society, technology companies and development partners  if the media sector is to become better and operate with minimal interruptions.

Africa Digital Rights Fund Supports Mainstreaming of Online Freedoms in Somali Territories

By Ashnah Kalemera |

The digital landscape of Somalia and the breakaway states of Somaliland and Puntland is largely shaped by the region’s history of terrorism and political turmoil. Website censorship, internet disruptions and crackdowns on the media co-exist in a fast-evolving technology sector, within a regressive policy and regulatory environment. With support from the Africa Digital Rights Fund (ADRF), three Somali initiatives are working to positively influence this landscape by raising the visibility of digital rights issues, alongside pushing for policy and practice reforms to ensure effective and inclusive use of technology for socio-economic and political development. 

Combined, the initiatives have skilled 235 human rights defenders, media practitioners and activists in safety and security online, and convened multiple stakeholder forums featuring government authorities, the private sector, civil society and law enforcement to promote wider awareness on digital rights and the need to prioritise rights-respecting technology adoption. The initiatives have also amplified efforts on effective utilisation of technology in Covid-19 response measures and worked to close the digital gender gap, focusing some interventions on addressing barriers to women’s meaningful participation in online spaces.

Freedom House’s Freedom in the World 2020 report ranks Somaliland as ‘partly free’, citing a “consistent erosion of political rights and civic space” evidenced by numerous arrests and detention of journalists and critics, and suspension of media outlets, among others. Assessed separately, Somalia is ranked as ‘not free’ with “impunity for human rights abuses by both state and nonstate actors” being the norm. As a combined region, Somalia’s press freedom ranking is dismal too – at position 163 out of 180 countries assessed as part of the 2020 World Press Freedom Index.

Somalia’s telecommunications sector, which is largely unregulated, has recorded steady growth, with 2020 figures indicating mobile subscriptions at 48% of the population and 10% internet penetration. Mobile money usage is widespread and, according to GSMA’s Mobile Money Regulatory Index, Somalia is ahead of many regional counterparts, having formalised sector regulations during 2019, allowed non-banks to offer electronic and mobile-based financial services, and permitted international mobile money transfers.

The ADRF’s partners – Digital Shelter, the Somaliland Journalists Association (SOLJA), and the Women in Media in Somalia (WIMISOM)- recognise that increased use of online platforms has the potential to positively shape political participation, innovation, inclusion and the realisation of human rights in Somalia and its breakaway regions.

In response to arrests and intimidation of several journalists and social media activists by the Somali federal government and federal states, digital attacks, and threats from terrorist groups, Digital Shelter spearheaded the “protect our online space” initiative with ADRF support. Under the initiative, Digital Shelter hosted a groundbreaking dialogue on shrinking online civic space in Mogadishu, which was attended by 80 human rights defenders, journalists, bloggers and artists. The dialogue was followed by two digital security training sessions (hosted over three days each), also held in Mogadishu, benefiting 100 participants (47% female), including women human rights defenders, media practitioners and activists. Besides risk assessment, device security, encryption and circumvention, the training featured sessions on tackling misinformation and disinformation. 

Digital Shelter hosted a second dialogue on digital transformation and the future of online civic space in Mogadishu in partnership with the Ministry of Posts, Telecommunications and Technology (MPTT). This forum brought together 80 government officials, tech activists, ICT experts, media practitioners, and civil society representatives. Speaking as a panelist at the forum, Abdiaziz Duwane, Director General of MPTT, reiterated the government’s commitment to prioritise the use of technology in private and public sectors, and to improve rural connectivity. 

With the success of the two dialogues, Digital Shelter went on to support Somalia’s Covid-19 response measures by hosting an engagement on misinformation and media coverage around Covid-19. Additionally, since September 2020, it has hosted monthly meet ups on digital rights topics, featuring various guest speakers. 

Recognising the role of media practitioners and digital platforms in promoting peace in conflict regions, the Somaliland Journalists Association (SOLJA), with ADRF support, equipped 120 journalists (40% female) with skills in innovative content development, safety and security online, and journalism for peace and humanitarianism. In addition, SOLJA organised a multi-stakeholder dialogue aimed at understanding misinformation and fact checking. Speaking at the dialogue, Muna Toosane, the Director of Communication at the Somaliland Ministry of Information and National Awareness, stated that ongoing government interventions were focused on increased adoption of technology, while mindful of emerging concerns over the spread of false and misleading information online. 

The engagements by SOLJA were informed by a knowledge, attitudes and perceptions survey on the impact of online platforms on print and broadcast media in Somaliland. Conducted during February and March 2020, the survey targeted 51 media stakeholders including the Ministry of Information, local print, broadcast and online media agencies, independent media practitioners, academia, human rights  and civil society organisations. The survey found that online platforms were perceived to have had a positive impact on governance and human rights in Somaliland. However, journalists’ use of the platforms was being undermined by limited understanding of online safety and security, pervasive hate speech and misinformation.

Further, SOLJA monitored Covid-19 coverage by five public and private media entities during April and May 2020. The assessment of Geeska Afrika, Jamhuuriya, Radio Hargeisa, Horn Cable TV and Saab TV, found that briefings from the Ministry of Health, the activities of the national response committee and prevention measures were the leading topics of reporting. However, messaging was often repetitive with little on societal and behavioural change. The report also found cases of misinformation on social media being reproduced in print and broadcast stories, as well as limited inclusion of women’s voices.

SOLJA has since gone on to engage Somaliland Members of Parliament, legal and religious leaders and the Deputy General Secretary of Somaliland parliament on a draft media bill to replace the Press Law 24/2004.

Digital Shelter and SOLJA’s interventions set the foundation for the third ADRF Somali grantee – Women in Media Initiative Somalia (WIMISOM) – whose work during 2020/2021 is focused on building the digital security skills and knowledge of women journalists (print, broadcast and online) and women-led media organisations in Puntland, Somalia and Somaliland as a means of combating threats against female journalists and their sources. 

Towards the end of 2020, WIMISON conducted a three days training of trainers (ToT) in Puntland, which was launched by a representative from the Puntland Ministry of Women Development and Family Affairs (MOWDAFA). The 15 trained trainers are due to support regional training during January and February 2021. In commemoration of the 16 Days of Activism Against Gender-based Violence, WIMISOM organised a roundtable discussion on the challenges facing women in journalism and their role in fighting gender-based violence. 

The July 2020 profiling of Digital Shelter’s work by the United Nations Assistance Mission in Somalia (UNSOM) is testament to the need for continued elevation of digital rights advocacy and network building within wider efforts to advance human rights in Somalia, Puntland and Somaliland – a need that ADRF is proud to have set the pace for by supporting Digital Shelter, SOLJA and WIMISOM.

The ADRF is an initiative of the Collaboration on International ICT Policy for East and Southern Africa (CIPESA) with support from the Omidyar Network, Ford Foundation, the German Society for International Cooperation Agency (GIZ) and the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency (Sida).

Tanzania Tramples Digital Rights in Fight Against Covid-19

CIPESA Writer |

Since the first case of the coronavirus disease (Covid-19) was announced in Tanzania on March 16, 2020, the government has been in the spotlight for its handling of the pandemic. It has denied the severity of the pandemic, suspended media houses, and criminalised Covid-19-related speech through enactment and enforcement of repressive regulations. 

In turn, there have been growing concerns that these measures are not only hurting the fight against the pandemic, but the wider enjoyment of civil liberties in the country, especially in the leadup to the October 28, 2020 general election.

Tanzania has been criticised for its lackluster response to the Covid-19 pandemic, with the World Health Organization (WHO) citing its lack of transparency. Further, a team of United Nations experts noted that the government was not meeting its commitments on information sharing and transparency, after it stopped releasing statistics on Covid-19 cases at the end of April. 

At the end of March, Tanzania’s President, John Pombe Magufuli, is reported to have encouraged people to continue visiting places of worship, while comparing the virus to the Biblical Satan and saying that it “cannot survive in the body of Jesus Christ.”

President Magufuli also rejected the need to restrict movement of citizens, claiming stringent social isolation measures would severely damage the economy, and in June 2020, he declared the country virus-free, “thanks to God” and prayers by citizens.

In July 2020, the United Nation experts stated that Covid-19 had compounded the pre-existing human rights concerns in Tanzania, notably, the right to freedom of expression, including freedom to seek, receive and impart information.

Enactment of repressive regulations

In July 2020, the government repealed the 2018 Tanzania’s Electronic and Postal Communications (Online Content) Regulations and replaced them with the Tanzania Electronic and Postal Communications (Online Content Regulations 2020. The 2020 regulations aggravate the crackdown on free speech as they require the registration of bloggers, online discussion forums, radio and television webcasters. 

The new regulations define “news related content”, as online news information gathering, compiling, editing, publication and broadcasting in a manner similar or that bears a resemblance to traditional media services provision. In the renew regulations, the definition of an “online forum” has been expanded to cover every possible online fora and “online platforms.” These definitions are so vague that their application is potentially boundless in scope.

Further, they impose annual license fees on the online content services, grant the regulator sweeping powers to suspend media outlets and journalists, and detail a broad list of prohibited content. 

Among others, the regulations prohibit the publication of “content with information with regards to the outbreak of a deadly or contagious disease in the country or elsewhere without the approval of the respective authorities.” The penalty for breach of the regulations is a fine of not less than five million Tanzanian shillings (USD 2,140), imprisonment for not less than 12 months, or both.

Regulation 9(g) expands the obligations of online content service providers to immediately take down any prohibited content once ordered by the Tanzania Communications Regulatory Authority (TCRA).

Criminalisation of Covid-19 false news

Besides the enactment of repressive Covid-19-related regulations, the government has also invoked laws predating the pandemic to intimidate, arrest, and detain persons, including whistleblowers and critics, in order to censor what is perceived as Covid-19 misinformation or disinformation.

In March 2020, the Tanzania Prime Minister, Kassim Majaliwa, warned the public against spreading against misinformation around the coronavirus outbreak, stating that those found guilty would be dealt with. He directed the TCRA to monitor and apprehend persons disseminating false news, which he said was causing confusion in society. The government subsequently released a list of qualified persons to educate the public about Covid-19, and directed that all media source information only from those on the list.

These threats were quickly followed up with arrests and prosecution of individuals, and harassment of media houses, some of whom had their licences suspended. 

In April 2020, there were numerous individuals arrested and charged due to Covid-19 related content that authorities deemed unofficial. A similar argument was maid against media houses which resulted in having their licenses suspended.

Awadhi Lugoya was arrested and accused of wrongful use of social media, for opening a Facebook account called “Coronavirus Tanzania” and using it to purportedly spread “misleading information” about the pandemic. Mariamu Jumanne Sanane, a third-year student at the University of Dar es Salaam, was arrested in April 2020 after she claimed on social media that there were 230 confirmed cases of Covid-19 and four deaths in Tanzania. 

Meanwhile, Afrikana Mlay was arrested over accusations of spreading false information on social media, to the effect that the government was hiding the number of coronavirus disease cases in the country. The police claimed that the post was “intended to create panic and discourage efforts being undertaken by the government in fighting [the] spread of the virus.”

On April 28, 2020, Ibrahim Bukuku, a first-year student at the University of Dodoma, was arrested and charged for allegedly disseminating false and misleading information through a WhatsApp group about an alleged cure for Covid-19.  

Similarly, earlier in April 2020, Albert Sengo, a journalist working with Jembe Radio FM in Mwanza region, was charged in court for publishing online content on his “unregistered” online GSENGO TV

On the same day, Albert Msando, a prominent lawyer in the Arusha region, was arrested and later charged with allegedly spreading Covid-19 misinformation over his remarks about the worsening coronavirus situation in Arusha. His arrest came only hours after Arusha Regional Commissioner Mrisho Gambo had directed the police force to arrest any citizen disseminating conflicting public information on Covid-19.

Also in April, the Zanzibar Information Department suspended Talib Ussi Hamad, a journalist with the Tanzania Daima daily newspaper, for six months under the Registration of News Agents, Newspapers, and Books Act No. 5 of 1988 and its amendments No. 8 of 1997. Talib Hamad had allegedly reported about a Covid-19 patient without the patient’s consent. He filed a case in the Zanzibar High Court in July challenging the decision. The Zanzibar government lifted the suspension in August 2020. 

Likewise, Mwananchi daily newspaper had its online license suspended for six months and fined five million shillings (USD 2,200) by the TCRA after it posted a photo of President Magufuli out shopping and surrounded by a crowd of people, eliciting online discussion on Tanzania’s approach to addressing Covid-19 and the apparent breach of social distancing guidelines. According to the TCRA, the paper breached the Electronic and Postal Communications (Online Content) Regulations as its report was allegedly misleading and had caused confusion in the community. 

Three other media organisations – Star Media Tanzania Ltd, Multichoice Tanzania Ltd and Azam Digital Broadcast Ltd – were on April 2, 2020 fined USD 2,200 each and ordered to apologise for “transmission of false and misleading information” about the country’s approach to managing Covid-19. In addition, Kwanza Online TV was suspended for 11 months in June 2020 for reposting on Instagram a health alert from the US Embassy warning of an “elevated” risk of Covid-19 in the country, which the regulator found to be misleading content that contravened professional standards, arguing that the media house had failed to verify the accuracy of the information in the alert.

On April 30, 2020 two employees of Mwananchi Communications Ltd. – Haidary Hakam and Alona Tarimo, were arrested and charged for allegedly disseminating false information about Covid-19 victims on WhatsApp groups contrary to the Cybercrime Act of 2015.

Undermining citizen participation 

These developments are reflective of how the Tanzanian authorities have used repressive laws to crack down on  journalists for doing their jobs, especially during the Covid-19 pandemic. 

In a country where civil liberties have been eroded over the years, the growing hostility of the government towards dissenting opinions, including on the state’s handling of Covid-19, has forced human rights defenders, journalists, activists, the political opposition, and ordinary citizens to self-censor, and could prompt them to refrain from exercising their right to public participation.

As Tanzania prepares to go to the polls in less than ten days, the government must desist from further affronts on civil liberties, especially the right to freedom of expression and access to information, the lifeblood of any democratic society.