When being ‘offensive’ or ‘morally improper’ online carries an indeterminate jail Ssentence in East Africa


The enforcement of the online content regulations has scared people from stating their opinions online in Tanzania. PHOTO/Erick Kabendera/IPS

JamiiForums was Tanzania’s largest whistleblowing online platform, with one million visitors each day. But now some 90 percent of staff has been retrenched and the owners are considering shutting down their offices since the June implementation of the country’s online content communication law.

Across this East African nation, social commentators and celebrities have shut down their blogs as many cannot afford the hundreds of dollars required in licence fees to register them. And internet cafes may start closing down too as the new law requires them to install expensive security cameras.

A once-famous blogger in Dar es Salaam tells IPS he was forced to close down his blog because he couldn’t afford paying USD 900 in licence fees to register it in compliance with the new regulation.

A minimum jail sentence of 12 months

In June many bloggers and content providers were contacted by the Tanzania Communications Regulatory Authority (TCRA) and asked to immediately shut down their services and apply for a license within four days.

It was the beginning of the enforcement of the country’s Electronic and Postal Communications (Online Content) Regulations 2017. Civil society and digital rights activists have condemned the regulations as draconian.

This is what the law states:

  • All blogs, online forums, content hosts and content producers must register online and pay licence fees of up to USD 900;
  • Internet cafes must install surveillance cameras to monitor people online;
  • Material deemed “offensive, morally improper” or that “causes annoyance,” is prohibited and a minimum fine of USD2,230 or 12 months in jail as a minimum sentence is recommended for anyone found guilty;
  • Social media comments are even subject to the new regulations.
  • The regulation, however, doesn’t provide a maximum jail term, meaning a magistrate could send an offender to prison for an indeterminate period of time.

    Terrified of saying something wrong online

    The source, who wished to remain anonymous, tells IPS that other bloggers he met in recent weeks who have paid the licence fees and registered with the TCRA have complained that they are registering a low number of visitors to their blogs. In addition, visitors have stopped leaving comments as they are afraid of being arrested and taken to court.

    “The ordinary people are scared to make comments on blog posts. They are scared because a single post could either land a blogger or their followers in the hands of authorities,” Maxence Melo, one of the founders of JamiiForums, tells IPS. He adds that authorities are focused on implementing the law but have not educated bloggers about what is deemed “offensive, morally improper” or “causes annoyance”.

    In addition, people can be charged for not having passwords on their computers, laptops and smartphones.

    A senior government attorney tells IPS on the condition of anonymity, because he wasn’t authorised to speak on the matter, that this act will be used against people who post defamatory content or hate porn online but claim that a third party had access to their mobile phone or devices and posted the content without their consent.

    Since the June implementation of the act, the impact has been far-reaching across the country.

    The owner of a famous internet café in Tanzania’s commercial capital says he has at least 50 customers a day but he wasn’t aware of the new requirement for internet café operators to install CCTV cameras on their premises.

    Inter Press Service for more

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