Tanzania's Cyber Crime Bill Gives More Power to Police, Less to People

A young man using his

A young man texting on his mobile phone in Dar Es Salaam, Tanzania. Photo by Pernille Baerendtsen, used with permission.

Pernille Baerendtsen contributed reporting to this post.

On April 1 2015, the Tanzanian parliament passed a cyber crime bill that attempts to address child pornography, cyberbullying, online impersonation, electronic production of racist and xenophobic content, unsolicited messages (i.e. spam), illegal interception of communications, and publication of false information — all in one law.

During the same parliament session three other bills were presented too: Access to Information (ATI), Media Services, and a Statistics Bill. However, the cyber crime bill is new, and the version posted online (not the final version) caused debate instantly.

As in many other countries, online fraud and financial scams indeed are a persistent threat in Tanzania. But the bill covers much more than this. And it has now passed the parliament despite criticism from opposition politicians, social media practitioners and human rights activists. Leading opponents of the legislation from civil society say they will take the government to court if the president signs the bill into law. The Citizen, a local newspaper, has identified several of the most concerning areas of the bill for Internet users.

In an analysis for CIPESA, a regional ICT policy group, Ugandan journalist and analyst Juliet Nanfuka writes that the primary aim of cyber crime bill should be to safeguard citizens’ rights on the Internet. Instead, she says, it shows an “overt disregard for press freedom and freedom of expression, [grants] excessive powers to police, and [limits] protections afforded to ordinary citizens.”

The bill outlaws the publication of “misleading, deceptive or false” information, a measure that Nanfuka noted presents a clear threat to free and open expression online. It 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. Aidan Eyakuze and Ben Taylor, both of whom work for the independent East African initiative Twawezaargued that the bill gives too much power to police without meaningful oversight:

…the bill gives even very junior police officers the power to search and/or seize any computer equipment or data, including the content of messages, with no meaningful justification required or oversight provided. This includes demanding information from internet service providers and mobile phone networks.

Tanzanian blogger Thinklessactmore noted that police could use the law to “harass online activists in the name of suspicion of cyber bullying without due [process] of the law.” Twitter user Sultan Rajab, a tax and financial consultant in Tanzania, said he thought well of the bill, but was concerned about the powers it bestows upon police:

@JMakamba it is a good bill/law. I am worried about the power given to our police. Ignorant & low income earners might suffer.

— Sultan Rajab (@SultanKipupwe) April 1, 2015

The bill also criminalizes the sending of information “without prior solicitation” by electronic means. While this section is intended to address spam and phishing attacks, it could be interpreted quite broadly. Maria Sarungi Tsehai, a communications expert and founder of the organisation Change Tanzania, asked:

@jpb4rretto: @MariaSTsehai How is any message transmitted with solicitation? Call me and ask me to write you and email? #CyberCrimeBill

— Maria Sarungi Tsehai (@MariaSTsehai) April 2, 2015

The Cyber Crime Bill relates to the aforementioned new bills on Access to Information, Media Services, and Statistics — all of which could have a serious impact on free expression in Tanzania. But unlike the Cyber Crime Bill, none of these three bills have been shared with the public in their current versions.

Commenters on social media and journalists are sharing opinions on why they think the Tanzanian government has an interest in keeping these bills from the public, while at the same time rushing the process. Some question if it is due to the fact that Tanzania is preparing for elections in late October 2015. Tanzania's ruling party, Chama Cha Mapinduzi (CCM), over the past few years increasingly has confronted the growing influence of opposition parties. At the same time, journalists and media have also faced threats and violence.

Writing on Washington Post blog, Keith Weghorst and Ruth Carlitz argue that fast-tracking the bills is “consistent with the behavior of a ruling party willing to hold onto power at all costs.” They write, “The more that the government can weaken the legitimacy of opposition criticism—by monopolizing the flow of public information—the better they are positioned to prevent scandals and poor performance from hurting them at the polls.”

Thinklessandactmore was impressed that Tanzania has realized the need to regulate the Internet use, but said the bill was rushed into parliament:

It’s important to have [a] law that would regulate online activities and the use of internet but it should be done in a right way. There is no hurry in having such law; there was none in the past 53 years of independence. If it takes one or two years to have a better cyber-crime law be it so, let’s conduct enough research on the issues; collect different opinions about the bill before it is present in the parliament.

Lwanda Magere, a software engineer, accused its authors of using a “copy-paste” strategy:

Cyber Crime Bill Tanzania: copied and pasted, almost zero ability to implement.

— Lwanda Magere (@nndekindo) April 7, 2015

Tanzanian blogger PATO jokingly shared a photo showing the number of members of parliament who passed the bill:

These are your MPs that passed the #CyberCrimeBill y'day! Vote wisely in October fellas! pic.twitter.com/pEScSHYYPZ

— PATO♠️ (@PatNanyaro) April 2, 2015

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