From ALLOYCE KIMBUNGA
DAR ES SALAAM - DIRECTIVES on online forums, blogs and streaming websites to register with the government and comply with legislation is the latest in a series of events highlighting the relapse of Tanzania President John Magufuli from a media darling to a typical African leader cracking down on media to maintain his grip on power.
Tanzania's Communications Regulatory Authority (TCRA) has issued the directive ordering unregistered websites to comply with the country's Electronic and Postal Communications (Online Content) Regulations or cease publication.
The regulations, which were originally issued in March, set high registration fees that require bloggers and forum hosts to pay an initial fee of $484 and an annual fee of $440.
Failure to comply with these regulations can carry a prison term of up to 12 months and fines of up to 5 million Tanzanian shillings (US$2 200).
The rules also allow the government to strip online users of anonymity, requiring websites to "have in place mechanisms to identify" those who interact on the forums, and require that cyber cafes keep user logs for up to 12 months.
Additionally, the regulations allow the government to force websites to take down “prohibited” content, which is cumbersomely defined to include material that “causes annoyance.”
In fear of falling foul to the legislation, several websites and online discussion platforms have shut down, most prominently the Jamii Forums, lauded as the Swahili version of Wikileaks.
Jammi Forums was alongside a group of rights organisations that had filed a lawsuit challenging the government directive that was initially set to take effect in May.
On May 27, the High Court ruled against their lawsuit, ruling that the applicants had not sufficiently demonstrated their standing in the case.
Jamii Forums has previously been accused of obstructing justice for refusing to reveal the identities of whistleblowers and for hosting a domain outside of Tanzania. This led to three separate and prolonged court cases.
The company's founders were acquitted of the charges in one of the cases on June 1, but hearings for two other cases are ongoing.
Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) said Magufuli's policies were aggressively eroding the diversity and robustness of online media in Tanzania and by extension East Africa.
“This policy is counter-intuitive to Tanzania's democratic goals,” said CPJ's Africa programme coordinator, Angela Quintal.
“We urge authorities to scrap these problematic regulations and allow the free press to thrive online.”
TCRA has defended its directive, saying the government is acting in “good faith” to recognise content providers. About 50 had registered sinceMarch, the regulator said.
CPJ stated it had during Magufuli’s presidency, who was sworn in November 2015 to succeed the affable Jakaya Kikwete, documented an increase in hostility towards the media in Tanzania.
These include newspaper shutdowns, hefty fines imposed on television stations and the disappearance of an investigative journalist, Azory Gwanda.
Media have been sanctioned for “abusing” the president and publishing “false information.”
Gwanda has been missing since November last year after four unidentified people in a vehicle picked him up from a trading centre in his hometown of Kibiti, which is located on the Coast region.
In November, Magufuli ratified the Media Services Bill, replacing the 1970s Newspaper Act. It provides for severe prison sentences and fines; allows more control over the content of publications and requires the registration of journalists.
In March, police in the city of Dodoma arrested a driver and a farmer accused of mobilising fellow citizens to demonstrate against the increasing dictatorship of Magufuli on social media.
In the wake of the halted protests, Magufuli issued a stern warning.
“Some people have failed to engage in real politics and would like to see street protests. Let them demonstrate and they will see who I am," he said in a recent speech.
Earlier this year, two opposition political leaders -Joseph Mbiliyini and Emmanuel Masonga – were sentenced to five months’ imprisonment for using “insulting language” against Magufuli.
The pro-democracy group, watchdog, Freedom House denounced the sentencing.
“The jailing of opposition politicians for expressing their views on issues of public interest, such as political violence, highlights the Magufuli administration’s growing intolerance of peaceful and legitimate dissent and is aimed at intimidating critics of the government,” said Jon Temin, director of Africa programmes, said at the time.
Opposition political gatherings are banned for the duration of this parliament, which runs until 2020.
Musicians have also borne the brunt of Magufuli’s rule.
Award-winning Nassib Abdul, also known as Diamond Platnumz, was recentlydetained for a video clip on Instagram, showing him kissing a young woman.
Faustina Charles, also known as Nandy, was also detained for posting a video clip of herself and another musician, which was deemed indecent.
Last year, Emmanuel Elibariki, known as Nay wa Mitego, was arrested for releasing a song deemed insulting to the government.
Magufuli’s election campaign built on his image as a no-nonsense, corruption-fighting man of the people, nicknamed “The Bulldozer” from his stint as Minister of Works.
The media, then, portrayed Magufuli in positive light, as a panacea to many ills afflicting the country.
An image of him riding back to his office on a bicycle after sweeping the streets in the commercial ports of Dar-es-Salaam is among the most iconic shots of his reign.
After his inauguration, he had cancelled the country’s independence day celebrations and ordered the clean-up.
James Bendera, socio-political commentator, noted former allies in Magufuli’s Chama Cha Mapinduzi (CCM) ruling party had felt the president’s iron fist.
A handful of ministers have been sacked, including Information Minister Nape Nnauye, who criticised the intrusion by armed men in Tanzania’s main private broadcaster, led by Dar es Salaam regional commissioner Paul
Makonda, to demand the airing of a video aimed at undermining a popular local pastor with whom Makonda has a dispute.
Makonda is seen as an ally to Magufuli.
Also last year, two senior government officials were sacked for failure to remember how much money had been allocated to their portfolios, when Magufuli asked.
“Magufuli has a streak as a trigger-happy leader,” Bendera said.
“There is some potential of causing ructions within his party and it remains to be seen how this and his controlling type of leadership would impact on CCM’s prospects in the next elections.”
Elections are due in 2020.
Ahead of the 2015 poll, factions emerged within CCM as Mugufuli emerged the winner of the party’s primary polls ahead of a number of party bigwigs, among them former Prime Minister, Edward Lowassa, who subsequently dumped the party.
– CAJ News