On December 13, 2016, Maxence Melo, the co-founder of JamiiForums, popularly known as “Swahili WikiLeaks,” was arrested in Dar es Salaam. Citing a new cybercrime law, the authorities demanded that he hand over details of users on the platform, a network of blogs that had reported on several political scandals in the country. Melo refused, and he was charged with obstruction of justice.

Since then, Melo said, he has appeared in court more than 150 times. He has repeatedly fallen foul of the new rules of the Tanzanian internet, which were progressively tightened under the then-president, John Pombe Magufuli, whose administration clamped down hard on free expression. After coming to power in 2015, Magufuli raged against “decadence” online and at “fake news” — which in his conception included the Covid-19 pandemic — shutting down newspapers and radio stations and attacking social media.

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Magufuli’s death was announced on March 17. The official cause was a heart condition, but rumors persist that he was being treated for Covid-19. The vice-president, Samia Suluhu Hassan, was sworn in days later, making history as Tanzania’s first female president. 

Melo, along with other free speech advocates, see Magufuli’s passing as an opportunity to unwind five years of threats and intimidation, and to reestablish digital rights in Tanzania. For Melo, the journey has been arduous. Now, there is light at the end of the tunnel. “I love my country. There are moments I have thought of fleeing and seeking asylum. But I concluded that, without passing through hardships, we cannot make change.”

In its first two years in office, Magufuli’s administration worked to impose greater control over the media, limiting broadcasters’ political coverage, revoking newspapers’ licenses, and pursuing bloggers like Melo. In 2018, it imposed a new economic mechanism for censorship. 

The new Electronic and Postal Communications (Online Content) Regulations required all online content creators to pay $930 (2 million Tanzanian shillings) in registration and licensing fees — a substantial amount in a country where the gross national income per capita is $900. 

Elsie Eyakuze, a high-profile blogger who ran The Mikocheni Report stopped posting after the regulations were announced. She told Rest of World that  the blogosphere changed overnight. “The fee was set at such a rate that I knew many of the young bloggers who were getting started could not continue. We were starting to have a rich ecosystem, and I watched it shrink.” 

The regulations also penalized bloggers for publishing “prohibited content,” a broad and undefined term that was ripe for interpretation and manipulation. 

Ahead of elections in 2020, the government cracked down further, arresting opposition leaders and journalists, closing media outlets, and temporarily shutting down the internet during the vote. Even today, some social media sites can only be accessed using a VPN. 

After Magufuli won the elections, Tanzania’s online content regulations were made more restrictive. These laws were subsequently used to threaten people who posted speculation about Magufuli’s health, even as the president tried to minimize the risk of the disease. Four people were arrested over spreading “rumors.”

Magufuli’s government outlawed publishing national statistics that in any way challenged official government data and ultimately stopped releasing pandemic data in April 2020. But even as he restricted the online media and spread his own misinformation locally about Covid-19, Tanzanians used VPNs to seek more credible information and share what they were seeing with their own eyes as the disease spread. 

Even though the online space was restricted, dissent simmered below the surface, says Aidan Eyakuze, executive director of Twaweza, a nongovernmental organization championing human rights and democracy in East Africa. “The internet never left. It was made harder to access, but people continued to talk,” said Eyakuze, who is the brother of Elsie, the Mikocheni blogger. “We saw this with Covid-19. The government was quiet, but social media raised the alarm, and it caught the attention of international media.”

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Change is on the horizon

There is growing confidence that Hassan, the new president, will take the country in a different direction. Khalifa Said, an investigative journalist in Dar es Salaam, told Rest of World that now “optimism is characterizing the general atmosphere” brought about by Hassan’s new tone of leadership. 

“Samia Suluhu Hassan is a measured person,” he said. “She is already setting a tone that is not intimidating or threatening like her predecessor. There must also be changes to the legal frameworks which protects media as well as other political parties, NGOs, and civil society.” 

Within the first month of taking office, president Hassan has already made some strong moves that signify a different stance on media freedom and digital rights than that of her predecessor. The government has suspended price rises for data, in an attempt to keep the internet affordable and accessible, and indicated that it needs to review the laws that protect witnesses and informants. 

Perhaps the most promising sign so far is Hassan’s order to lift a ban on online TV outlets that had their licenses revoked. Under Magufuli, the shutdown and suspension of the country’s biggest media platforms became common. In 2017 alone, four newspapers were banned. Magufuli publicly warned journalists on several occasions that there were limits on press freedom.In a U-turn, president Hassan is now sending a message that the Tanzanian media will be able to operate more freely, albeit with caveats. “You must not ban just because you have the power to do so,” she said, speaking at an event in Dar es Salaam this week. “Lift the bans but make sure [the media] follow the government’s regulations and guidelines.”

Tony Alfred, a policy analyst from Dar es Salaam, believes that this shows Hassan has learned from her predecessor’s failures. “The strategy of trying to control the internet did not work that well,” he told Rest of World. “I think there will be positive changes. She is showing the political will to make things better.” 

The regulator is also looking at revising the prohibitively expensive licensing requirements for bloggers. In March, the minister of communications and information technology, Faustine Ndugulile, said that social media “provides employment to many young people” and that the cost of the licenses should fall. 

Ndugulile also said that the ministry is looking at protecting personal information by introducing a data privacy and data protection law, something that digital rights activists have been calling for for years.

“We must take the initiative. Let us not sit back and wait for freedom of expression to be delivered on a silver platter.”

In June 2020, the human rights organization Article 19 said the current online content regulations “continue to grant unlimited access to ‘relevant authorities’ to individuals’ personal information held by third parties, without judicial sanction.” Cyber cafés must also keep user logs for up to 12 months. These laws have a chilling effect on free speech and have stunted the growth of the local tech ecosystem, which has not developed at anything like the speed of that in neighboring Kenya, despite the rapid pace of internet adoption in Tanzania. According to a report from Briter, out of the 98 disclosed tech deals in Africa in 2019, only one deal was made in Tanzania, even though it’s East Africa’s second largest economy.

Digital rights activists say that the government has made a good start, but there is a lot of work still to be done. Twaweza’s Eyakuze said that the remaining regulations that criminalize expression need to be changed and that expensive and complex registration processes for online content need to be removed. “If you need to pay to have a voice, then you are restricted,” he said.

He said that activists have to seize what could be a brief window for change in Tanzania. “We must take the initiative. Let us not sit back and wait for freedom of expression to be delivered on a silver platter.”