In Tanzania, Activists Worry a New Law Will Land Them in Jail for ‘Spam’

A law ostensibly intended to crack down on spam could end up punishing dissidents.

May 21 2015, 10:00am

Image: Ali Damji/Flickr

The new Cybercrimes Act was signed by the Tanzanian president last week to put a stop to the electronic production of publication of "false" information, "illegal interception" of communications and sending "unsolicited messages" with an aim to "cut down cyber security threats to the country."

The Tanzanian Computer Emergency Response Team (TCERT) was also launched to monitor the production of "racist and xenophobic" content online, child pornography and online impersonations, all of which would be considered a crime under the new law.

While this is ostensibly intended to prevent spam and phishing attacks, Tanzanian civil society advocates like Semkae Kilonzo at the Policy Forum—which represents a network of 77 organizations in Tanzania—are worried they could be wrongly accused under the law for sending "false" information and spam as part of their day-to-day communications.

"We conduct Breakfast Debates on the last Friday of every month and send out invitations to a mailing list with over 1800 emails," Semkae tells Motherboard. "Many NGOs and other non-profit organisations that publish reports on their work online and elsewhere—especially reports that could be seen as critical or embarrassing to government—are vulnerable. If the topic to be debated at the meeting is unpalatable to authorities, they can claim the emails are unsolicited and the debate is based on false premises."

"They want to control social media."

It is also a problem for Irenei Kiria, a secretary for Tanzanian medical research NGO Sikika. "We usually use various internet platforms to communicate our information—Twitter, Facebook, blogs, SMS, WhatsApp, etc," she says. "The use of all these forms will be rendered useless by the Act which in part criminalises transmission of any information deemed misleading, defamatory, false or inaccurate by the government."

The act also gives police wide-ranging ability to search the homes of suspected violators of the law, seize their electronic hardware, and demand their data from online service providers. Mike McKee, co-founder of Tanzania's most well known web forum, is concerned that this would impact registered users who post stories and share "confidential" government documents, which would be considered a crime under Section 8.

"For the past eight years, all the scandals that ever occurred in our country all originated from the internet and especially our platform," he says. "This will affect our users by destroying the confidence they had on our platform as it been open and safe for them to air out their views. They will be afraid to have a conversation online because they know the government will be watching them."

"Police officers can just go to a suspect and confiscate his devices as the law gives him power for the user to provide passwords to the devices, invade his privacy, read everything on the device and later charge him," he continues. "We could ask for help on the technical know-how on how to counter-attack government surveillance and safety for users, but we can't have ways to increase our users' confidence because the law gives so much power to the government. There is no way we could control that."

McKee says Jamii Forums users have shared information on the misuse of police force, threats from drug dealers and bank thefts that have often led to the resignation of government officials. As the posts are made anonymously, any threats are subsequently directed at the owners of the site like himself.

With punishments ranging from heavy fines to a 10-year jail sentence, he considers the move an attempt to suppress corruption allegations ahead of the East African nation's general elections in October.

"During the last election [in 2010], the ruling party Chama Cha Mapinduzi pointed out how citizens are active on our platform talking on bad things about the government, and how that influenced the whole online community's impressions about Tanzania," he says. "We are going to be the mouthpiece of people during the entire political process. We influence what people do in politics; we are reaching one million unique users every month. They want to control social media."

As the Africa regional meeting of the Open Government Partnership (OGP) is taking place in the capital of Dar es Salaam this week, such concerns are being raised before the Act is fully implemented. Despite a government campaign to promote an understanding of the Act and foster discussions, only a draft version of the Bill dated from February is available to the public.

The act also gives police wide-ranging ability to search the homes of suspected violators of the law

"Despite various statements, we the citizens are cautiously optimistic about the outcomes," says Maria Sarungi-Tsehai, a communications expert and media commentator who is on the organizing team of the OGP Africa meeting. "We have made it clear that in the current form they would severely limit the freedom of information and expression by the work of media and civil society organizations. Although there is a need for cyber security, there is no need to criminalise gossip as the Cyber Crime Act does in its current form."

Sarungi-Tsehai says this is a huge shift from 2013, where President Jakaya Kikwete "made public a commitment to have an Access to Information Law by 2014" at the OGP Global Summit in London in 2013, which she also attended.

For now, the future is uncertain for Jamii Forums and its users. "Given the new law is in place, we won't even exist to witness these elections," McKee says. "They will shut us down before it gets there. The law gives that mandate to the minister."