East African

Posting ‘rumours’ on social media could land you in Tanzania jail



By BOB KARASHANI

It is now illegal to post “rumours” or messages that “ridicule, abuse or harm the reputation, prestige or status of the United Republic of Tanzania” on social media platforms such as WhatsApp, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and YouTube.

Tanzanian Information Minister Harrison Mwakyembe signed into law the Electronic and Postal Communications (Online Content) Regulations 2020, which became operational on July 17. The new online content regulations effectively tighten state control over the internet and social media interactions.

The social media apps are popular platforms in Tanzania for voicing opinions on politics, the economy, social issues, sports and entertainment. The expanded licensing requirements replace previous regulations enacted two years ago under the 2010 Electronic and Postal Communications Act (Epoca).

Prohibited content under the new rules includes that which “threatens national security and public order” and that which “is involved in planning, organising, promoting or calling for demonstrations, marches or the like that may lead to public disorder”.

Also prohibited is content that would “harm the national currency or lead to confusion about the economic condition in the country” or is likely to “harm national unity or social peace and stability, promotes or favours”, sedition or provokes hate speech between individuals and groups.

The new regulations also prohibit content on “the outbreak of deadly or contagious diseases in the country or elsewhere without the approval of the respective authorities”, which includes unauthorised information on the coronavirus pandemic.

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President John Magufuli declared Tanzania free of Covid-19 in early June. There has been no official tally of confirmed cases or deaths since April 29, when the numbers stood at 509 and 21 respectively.

The Tanzania Communications Regulatory Authority (TCRA) published a notice in March (just after the first Tanzanian case was reported) calling on people to screenshot and report any messages posted on social media platforms that “distort” Covid-19 related information to a hotline phone number set up by the agency.

A TCRA spokesperson confirmed to The EastAfrican on Tuesday that the notice remains valid to date.

Licensing

The new regulations also split licensing categories for online content production between news and current affairs, education, religion and entertainment, with each applicant required to specify just one category they intend to focus on.

Applicants will also have to fulfil new requirements such as presenting to TCRA their curriculum vitae, national identity card numbers, editorial policy guidelines and “any other documents as the authority may require”.

Mainstream content service providers including radio and TV stations with restricted district or regional coverage licences will not be allowed to stream content on any online platform, including YouTube.

As before, licences will be renewable after every three years and violators of the rules will face minimum penalties of a Tsh5 million ($2,175) fine or a one-year jail term, or both.

According to TCRA Head of Licensing Andrew Kisaka, the new licence categories are meant to cover some content providers who were excluded from the earlier regulations. These include music artistes, comedians and other entertainers who regularly post new songs and other works on online platforms.

Content related to gambling, sports betting and lottery activities, particularly via electronic channels, has also been prohibited.

Mr Kisaka was quoted by The Citizen newspaper as saying the new regulations are designed to elaborate on prohibited content “in order to increase public awareness and compliance”.

But the changes also drew criticism. Lawyer Jebra Kambole described them as oppressive and going against the tenets of “freedom of speech and people’s rights to get information and to be heard”.

Maria Sarungi Tsehai, a vocal Tanzanian activist, said they were an attempt by the government “to use the law as a weapon against the citizenry — in other words, to deploy lawfare”.

Legal channels

In a Twitter message, law professor Issa Shivji challenged critics to take their case to court and seek annulment of, or amendments to, the regulations on grounds that some clauses could be outside “the four walls of the national Constitution”.

“The court should be allowed to make an independent ruling according to the prevailing laws of the land. But how many citizens are willing and able to go to court? And how free are the courts?” Prof Shivji said.

“There is a distinct possibility of flawed regulations continuing to exist and be enforced legally simply because no court actions are brought against them,” he added.

Internet café operators are required to install surveillance cameras to record and archive activities inside the café, keep a proper customers register, and ensure every customer is registered upon showing a recognised identity card.



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