Four Tanzanians Charged For Publishing Political Information On WhatsApp

Ballot boxes. Photo by Sheila Rouge, labeled for reuse.

Four Tanzanians, Leila Sinare, Godfrey Soka, Deo Soka, and Monica Gaspary Soka were charged under Section 16 of Cybercime Act 2015 for publishing false election related information on the social messaging platform WhatsApp. The four appeared before a Magistrate's court in Dar Es Salaam, Tanzania on November 6, 2015.

Public prosecutors allege that the accused published audio information on a WhatsApp group called Soka Group that was intended to mislead the public during the October 2015 Tanzanian general elections.

Authorities frame the Cybercrime Act as an important tool for fighting child pornography, cyberbullying, online impersonation, racist and xenophobic content online, unsolicited messages (i.e. spam), illegal interception of communications, and publication of false information. The controversial law was passed in April of this year and signed into law by the former President Jakaya Kikwete in May 2015, despite criticism from opposition politicians, social media practitioners, and human rights activists.

The message they are accused of spreading in reads:

Ndugu zangu wana kigango cha siasa, hakuna cha kutakiana uchaguzi mwema wala nini. Nchi yetu inaingia kwenye machafuko muda wowote kuanzia sasa hivi na kama tulivyoambiwa kwamba nchi hii itageuka kuwa nchi ya vita ni kweli imeingia kwenye vita. “Mabox yenye kura feki yamekamatwa Jimbo la Vunjo yamekamatwa mabox matatu, tumekamata mabox feki Moshi mjini. Mabox 6 Ilemela, Mabox 12 Hanang. Kwa kifupi uchaguzi umeshavurugika na Tanga nasikia magari yamesimma sehemu.
Makamanda zetu bado wanaendelea kufuatilia lakini inasemekana ni mabox ya kura na mpaka sasa hivi hali sio nzuri CCM wameingiza kura feki na niseme kutokana na hali halisi ambayo ipo hatuponi kwa sababu Mwanza vijana vimeshaaanza kuuawa. “…. wameshakufa vijana wanne, watano mpaka sasa na hali hiyo inaendelea….. CCM jamani tunaomba mtuachie nchi kwa amani, kweli ingelipaswa kutuua angalau kwa sumu mkabaki wenyewe, msitutese msitutese…

Dear fellows of our political forum, there is no need for us to wish each other a nice election, as our country has already plunged into chaos and anytime soon it will turn into a war zone. It is true it has entered into war because three boxes full of fake votes have been recovered in Vunjo Constituency. We have found three other boxes at Moshi Town, six in Ilemela and 12 boxes in Hanang.

In short, the election has already been in disorder. I hear cars alleged to contain fake votes have been stopped in Tanga and our commanders are following them and until now the situation is not good. CCM [the ruling party] has inserted a lot of fake votes, and I should just say because of this situation we will not be saved, not saved because they have started killing youths in Mwanza, four are dead and five are in a serious condition…CCM please we beseech you to leave our country safely, you should have killed us by poison so that you remain behind alone, don’t torture us, don’t torture us.

Chama Cha Mapinduzi (CCM), Tanzania’s ruling party, candidate, John Magufuli, was declared winner by the election commission despite claims of vote rigging and calls for a recount by the opposition. He won 58.46% of the vote, while the main opposition candidate, Edward Lowassa, won 39.97%.

The information the four individuals are accused of spreading carry similar allegations of vote rigging by the ruling CCM and electoral violence in different parts of the country. The four have pleaded not guilty. They are scheduled to appear in court on December 3, 2015.

The accused are not the first Tanzanians to be charged under the new controversial law. The first individuals to be charged under the law since it was passed in Tanzania's parliament are Benedict Angelo Ngonyani, a 24-year-old student at Dar es Salaam Institute of Technology. He was charged on October 9 for publishing materials that prosecutors claimed were “false or not verified by relevant authorities” over a Facebook post claiming that Tanzania's Chief of Defence Forces, General Davis Mwamunyange, had been hospitalized after eating poisoned food. Authorities say Ngonyani posted this information knowing it to be false.

Sospiter Jonas was arraigned in a primary court in Dodoma Region and charged with “misuse of the Internet.” He posted a message on his Facebook page saying that Tanzanian Prime Minister Mizengo Pinda “will only become a gospel preacher.”

Free expression activists argue that the law gives too much power — without meaningful oversight — to police such as ability to search the homes of suspected violators of the law, seize their electronic hardware, and demand their data from online service providers. They have also argued that police or the state could use their power to harass online activists or social media users.

Of the 12 Sub Saharan African countries ranked by Freedom House in their Freedom of the Net Report 2015, 2 are ranked free, 3 not free and the rest partly free. Tanzania was not included in the report.

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