Tanzania’s new information laws draw fire from critics

Laws restricting publication of data without government sanction threaten freedom of expression, opponents say.

Leaked statistics have shown that Tanzania has lost up to 60 percent of its elephants to poaching in one area alone [AP]

Dar es Salaam, Tanzania – As the Tanzanian government receives funding and praise from multilateral bodies for open governance initiatives, activists, journalists, and civil society criticise the passing of new laws they insist restrict the media and free speech.

“A lot of people will become criminals because of these kinds of laws,” said Maxence Melo, founder of Jamii Forums, a platform for Tanzanians to voice their opinions online.

Neville Meena, the secretary of the Tanzania Editors Forum agreed. “I can see so many journalists being taken to court.”

According to the new statistics law, it is illegal for any publication to claim data not approved by the National Bureau of Statistics as “official.” Parliament approved the statistics bill in late March and it was recently signed into law by President Jakaya Kikwete. 

“There’s a lot of information we need to deny,” said Albina Chuwa, general director of the National Bureau of Statistics.

Chuwa said the new law will empower her office to “accommodate more, better production of the [data] system”. Chuwa said it will improve the standards of the published data.

Instead of pushing through a law which effectively criminalises any truth it has not first endorsed, the government of Tanzania should be accepting responsibility.

by Julian Newman, Environmental Investigation Agency

“It is very critical for countries to have a strong statistical system,” said Philippe Dongier, the World Bank’s country director in Tanzania.

“In Tanzania, we have a separate project looking at capacity building with statistics.” The organisation has invested $46m in the project.

For the love of elephants

Leaked documents recently revealed statistical data showing that Tanzania has lost 60 percent of its elephants in the Ruaha-Rungwato area to poaching in the past year. 

The UK-based Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA) accused the government of making excuses about validating the figures in order to evade publishing information of the dramatic decline in the elephant population.

EIA’s Julian Newman called the passing of the law “unfortunate”.

“Instead of pushing through a law which effectively criminalises any truth it has not first endorsed, the government of Tanzania should be accepting responsibility for the devastation of the country’s elephants and acting with genuine transparency regarding the true scale of the problem to identify and prosecute high-level ivory traffickers and corrupt officials,” Newman said.

In response to the public outcry, the National Bureau of Statistics published a three-page “Statement of Clarification of Misconception of Statistics Act 2015”. The document said members of civil society remain free to publish their own statistics.

Chuwa insisted the intention of the new law was to support a more robust statistics body, not prohibit free speech. 

Cybercrime and self-regulation

Internet usage is slowly but surely expanding in Tanzania, and Christopher Kidanka, bureau chief for the East African newspaper, said the law is an attempt to control the faster spread of information and growing robust online conversations.

The East African newspaper was banned by Tanzania in January. It had been operating in the country for 20 years, but it was recently discovered to be lacking proper registration.

Kidanka said upcoming elections in October play a role in the government’s new legislation, and that officials want to gain control over media outlets and the online information flow before the vote. 

The “cybercrime law”, passed with the statistics bill, makes it illegal to publish any unsolicited information electronically.

“How is any message transmitted with solicitation? Call me and ask me to write you and email?” tweeted Maria Sarungi Tsehai – a communications analyst and founder of the organisation Change Tanzania – on April 2 a day after the bill was passed.

Critics worry the new laws are an attempt to restrict media freedom [AFP/Getty Images]
Critics worry the new laws are an attempt to restrict media freedom [AFP/Getty Images]

Another, the “access to information” law criminalises the spreading of “false” information.

The combined impact of the new laws encourages self-censorship, said Johan Sundqvist, who works for the Swedish IOGT-NTO movement that focuses on the relationship between alcohol use and national development.

The organisation recently completed a major study across East Africa on the consequences of drinking behaviour, including missing school and work, poverty and gender-based violence.

Sundqvist said before these laws were in place, their data was used for lobbying purposes to encourage greater regulation.

“The government and powerful individuals have much invested in the big breweries, and thus we always have their eyes on us,” he said.

The organisation is currently “very hesitant” to publish the data, Sundqvist said. “Instead we try to talk around it, using general terminology or referring to the situation in neighbouring countries.”

The way Sundqvist sees it, even if his organisation can legally publish the statistics it risks punishment for spreading what the government could deem as incorrect information.

He called the laws “sneaky”.

Opaque laws

Although they purport to encourage clarity, much surrounding the evolution of the legislation and the language of the laws is hazy.

Civil society actors, including Melo from Jamii Forums, said it was aggressively pushed through parliament, taking Tanzanians by surprise before a response could be coordinated.

 Elephant poaching

“The citizens were not engaged,” said Melo.

Tom Rhodes is East Africa representative for the Committee to Protect Journalists. “The opaque nature in which these laws are being deliberated is part of the problem – to the point where challenging aspects of the laws presents a challenge,” he said.

“The confusion behind the process may very well be purposeful to pass unsavoury legislation unnoticed by the public ahead of this year’s elections,” Rhodes added.

As news of the information laws spreads, the government is launching an awareness campaign and said its is modifying and clarifying clauses. 

Tanzania is a member of the Open Government Partnership, a global initiative to promote government transparency and accountability, including making information more accessible to citizens. The country was one of the first in Africa to join the initiative, which also includes the United States and the United Kingdom. 

Together with the UK’s Department for International Development, the World Bank donated nearly $4.8m over three years to the Tanzanian government for the project.

Source: Al Jazeera