Leading independent websites go dark as Tanzania’s ‘blogger tax’ deadline approaches

Jamii Forum founder Maxence Melo. Photo via Facebook. Used with permission.

Alongside scores of independent blogs and social media pages, Tanzania's most popular independent news and user comment site, Jamii Forum, have shut themselves down in anticipation of the country's soon-to-be-implemented “blogger tax.”

On June 15, 2018, Tanzanian bloggers will have to register and pay over $900 USD per year to publish online. If blogs and other types of online content, such as YouTube channels, operate after June 15 without a license, they may be punished by a fine “not less than five million Tanzanian shillings” (around $2,500 USD), or imprisonment for “not less than 12 months or both.”

While the registration fee and subsequent fines are steep, many bloggers say the concern is not just about the money but also about the complexity and ambiguity of obliging the new regulations.

Since the directive was first issued by the Tanzania Communications Regulatory Authority (TCRA) on March 16, 2018, Tanzanian bloggers and civil society organizations have responded actively to the new regulations in a variety of ways.

A coalition of the Legal and Human Rights Centre and other civil society organisations including Tanzania Human Rights Defenders, Media Council of Tanzania, Jamii Media, Tanzania Media Women Association and Tanzania Editors Forum created a petition which was presented at the Mtwara High Courts on May 4. The judge asked the team to resubmit their petition on technical grounds, during which time they secured a temporary injunction until May 28. However, their case was ultimately dismissed with the judge arguing that “the organizations failed to demonstrate how they would be affected by the regulations.”

Tanzanian bloggers have creatively protested against the new blogging regulations, openly commenting on the blogging regulations online. Aikande Kwayu, who has blogged particularly about Tanzanian politics and the 2015 elections (and also writes book reviews and flash fiction) suspended her website on May 1 in an act of protest.

Mtega, a tech and development blog owned by Ben Taylor who resides in the United Kingdom, invited Tanzanian bloggers to write guest posts on his blog. Chambi Chachage handed ownership of his blog Udadisi (“Curiosity” in Swahili) on April 27 to Takura Zhangazha, who resides in Zimbabwe. And Elsie Eyakuze put her blog The Mikocheni Report on hold, taking a break to become a “digital refugee”:

On June 11, the extremely popular Jamii Forum — which has been dubbed both the “Tanzanian Reddit” and “Swahili Wikileaks” — decided to shut down, creating big waves on the Tanzanian social media scene.

In December 2016, Tanzanian police arrested Maxence Melo, co-founder, and director of Jamii Forums, for refusing to disclose information on its members, a demand made under the Cybercrimes Act.

On June 12, Elsie Eyakuze tweeted with a reference to how social media has connected people offline in Tanzania, as well as Jamii Forums’ significant role as a platform for whistleblowers leaking documents related to corruption:

In an interview, Jamii Forum founder Maxence Melo told The Citizen: “It is obvious that our platform was being targeted when this regulation was formulated.”

The $900 USD annual license fee is a substantial amount of money in a country where nearly one-third of the population still live in extreme poverty. The requirement to register platforms and obtain a tax clearance certificate may be a bureaucratic hurdle as most bloggers are individuals without registered companies. Blog and online media owners are first required to be granted a license, and then, to make matters more complicated, they must adhere to a rather complex set of regulations.

On June 12, Aikande Kwayu elaborated in a tweet:

On April 12, Ben Taylor explained some of these complexities, highlighting that the regulations require a blog owner “must be able to identify everyone who posts content”, and a blog owner “must cooperate with law enforcement officers” in relation to these regulations.

A screenshot of TCRA regulations detailing questions and definitions related to the new law shared on Twitter.

Taylor suggests that this could entail “demands to reveal the identity of anyone posting on your site, making anyone who posts anonymous comments on blogs, newspaper sites or web forums vulnerable to having their identity exposed.”

In Tanzania, political tensions have risen over the past few years. Since the presidential elections in 2015, Tanzania's opposition has been restricted by a ban on opposition rallies and the stifling of independent media, sanctions, intimidation, and punishment of citizens for criticising President John P. Magufuli of the ruling Chama cha Mapinduzi (CCM, Swahili for “Revolutionary Party”).

The country's Cybercrimes Act, passed in 2015, has played a significant role in stifling dissent. In 2015 and 2016 alone, at least 14 Tanzanians were arrested and prosecuted under the law, for insulting the president on social media.

Tanzania is not the only country taking control of its citizens’ use of online media in recent months. Uganda and Kenya have recently issued new online restrictions to content production and regulation.

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