Tanzania accused of making laws on the hoof in ‘Kafkaesque’ curb on free speech
There is a strange pattern to interviews in Tanzania. People on the verge of offering information stop mid-flow, pause, and then say something along the lines of: “I don’t have the data or information on that.”
It appears odd until you look at the bills that have been rushed through parliament in recent weeks, which activists and journalists say could turn Tanzania into one of Africa’s most repressive countries for freedom of speech.
“It’s not a coincidence. This is the year of elections,” says Maria Sarungi Tsehai, founder of Change Tanzania, a social media citizen movement. The organisation campaigns against laws that threaten independent reporting and dissident voices in the lead-up to October’s presidential and parliamentary elections.
A Cybercrimes Act, signed into law on 8 May, criminalises the sharing of information deemed “false, deceptive, misleading or inaccurate”, forces internet service and mobile phone providers to share users’ information without telling them, and allows police officers to search and seize equipment without much justification.
Maxence Melo, co-founder of JamiiForums – a news and social networking platform that has become Tanzania’s top whistleblowing site – is extremely worried about the laws. Since the site was founded in 2006, he has been questioned 17 times, detained twice, received death threats and suffered a mysterious car accident.
But he has refused to divulge the sources of information posted online. In 2007, Jamii published details of a corrupt energy deal – known as the Richmond scandal – which led to the dissolution of the cabinet and resignation of the prime minister. The exposé also brought Melo’s first arrest and interrogation.
Another energy scandal exposed by Jamii and subsequently picked up by newspapers led to further senior sackings and donor distrust in the shape of threats to withhold almost $500m (£324.5m) in aid.
More trouble followed for Melo. “They used to say: ‘We are going to come with a law that will force you to give us whatever document [or] details we need,'” he says.
Diplomats and journalists have dubbed the Cybercrimes Act the “Jamii bill”. Some MPs have told Melo not to make a fuss about it until after the elections, saying it might be amended later.
After elections in 2011, Melo says, Jamii was made “an enemy of the state” by President Jakaya Kikwete, who publicly blamed the site for a 20% drop in voter support from 2007. On the other hand, opposition politicians – some of whom have had their dirty laundry aired – have accused Jamii of working for the government.
The deputy communications minister, January Makamba – who hopes to run for the ruling Chama Cha Mapinduzi (CCM) party this year, when Kikwete steps down after his second term – accused Jamii of favouring the opposition in the last ballot.
The fact that they’ve been trying to shroud bills that are openly trying to curb the freedom of expression is ridiculous
Makamba says the Cybercrimes Act was not meant to prevent the exchange and drafting of information but “to protect people from abuse”, such as online fraud and bullying. “Tanzania is one of the freest countries in Africa,” he insists.
That diplomats are unable to find the final text of laws that have been passed is embarrassing for them, says Makamba, adding that the fact activists are struggling to see the drafts of others “speaks volumes about their level of interest on the matter”.
Tsehai couldn’t disagree more. “The fact that they’ve been trying to shroud bills that are openly trying to curb the freedom of expression is ridiculous,” she says. “I’d almost say it’s Orwellian, but I prefer Kafka.”
The cybercrime law sits uneasily with Tanzania’s membership of the open government partnership initiative, which is meant to make government business more transparent to citizens. Tanzania has a long tradition of official wariness of providing information and handling criticism.
Independent media only appeared 10 years ago, but really took off in the past five years with the proliferation of more than 800 newspapers. Many of these pop up at election time, with a clear political agenda. However, politicians quickly managed to buy or close outlets and, according to former journalists, encourage self-censorship.
Mobile phones have changed things. Jamii has more than a million followers on Facebook, 28 million mobile subscribers and up to 600,000 people using its online forum every day.
“The people in power … are finding that they have to deal with the jungle, something they can’t control, which is the internet,” says Tsehai.
The Cybercrimes Act seeks to deal with the rambunctious new media by decreeing that anyone sending or receiving “unsolicited messages” can be penalised for sharing them, be it through text messages, Facebook or Twitter.
Tsehai fears the authorities will send some citizens to jail “so that they can be examples for the people, and terrify them” into policing their own thoughts.
Another law, the 2013 Statistics Act, also deters Tanzanians from using or quoting anything but official government figures and data. Jamii’s plans to get citizens to post polling station reports in October is in jeopardy because the punishment for publishing “false or misleading statistical information” without “lawful authorisation” from the National Bureau of Statistics is a year in jail, a 10m shilling (£3,246) fine, or both.
After attempting to plant moles among Jamii’s staff, politicians are now offering to buy advertising at hugely inflated rates in an attempt to sway the site’s owners. They would rather shut down a site that is growing at 25% a month than buy it.
“I do not believe in money. I believe in people,” says Melo, 39, whose phone buzzes all the time with requests to join the site or attempts by hackers to silence him. Jamii, who gave up a relatively lucrative civil engineering job to work for virtually nothing, uses profits from advertising mainly on paying the 50 staff who edit up to 50,000 comments a day.
Melo survives on four hours sleep a night, because he vets new users and verifies all the information before it goes up, to ensure Jamii’s credibility and avoid legal problems.
That will become more difficult if other bills affecting the media are passed. Meanwhile, Melo and others fear an even bigger crackdown on dissenting voices. “If I’ve already been questioned 17 times [so far], I’ll probably be questioned 100 times in a month because they want to get everything, they want to have everything.”
The International Women’s Media Foundation supported Hannah McNeish’s reporting from Tanzania as part of its African Great Lakes reporting initiative