Image by Khalfan Said/ AP
Internet users across Tanzania have reported that some social media sites, including WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger, and Twitter, are being restricted as millions of people vote in the country’s general election.
However, evidence gathered by the Open Observatory of Network Interference (OONI) suggests that Twitter, WhatsApp, Facebook messenger, and Telegram have been blocked since October 27, 2020.
This follows an earlier directive restricting access to bulk short messaging services (SMS) and bulk voice services, starting October 24 until November 11, 2020, and legislation outlawing international press from covering developments in the country without local media partnerships.
The general election is Tanzania’s fifth since the reintroduction of multiparty politics in the early 1990s.
President John Magufuli, whose party, Chama Cha Mapinduzi has governed Tanzania since independence in 1962, is seeking a second term in office.
His main challenger is Tundu Lissu of the biggest opposition party, Chadema, who survived an assassination attempt three years ago and returned from Belgium in July where he had undergone rounds of treatment for gunshot wounds.
A total of 15 candidates are running for president – including former foreign minister Bernard Membe, an ex-colleague-turned-critic of Mr Magufuli who defected from the ruling party.
Twitter warned on Tuesday it was “seeing some blocking and throttling” of its services in Tanzania ahead of Wednesday’s polls, and appealed for the respect of “basic human rights.”
There have also been reports of violence and that police arrested an opposition leader in the semi-autonomous archipelago of Zanzibar.
Tanzania’s press freedom record
Tanzania ranks 124 out of 180 countries in the 2020 World Press Freedom Index by Reporters Without Borders.
The report indicates that Tanzania has become increasingly authoritarian since John Magufuli’s election as president in 2015. “None of the 180 countries ranked in RSF’s World Press Freedom Index has suffered such a precipitous decline in recent years.”
It further highlighted incidents such as the arrest of Erick Kabendera, an investigative reporter for his articles criticizing the economy, the government, and corruption; the closure of a total of 15 media outlets in the past four years and constant threats to withhold state advertising from privately-owned media, among other incidents.
Online information has also been checked since the adoption of a law under which websites and blogs have to pay exorbitant fees to register and get accreditation.
Censorship during elections in Africa
Blocking social media sites prior to elections is not a new concept on the African Continent. In 2016 social media was blocked in Uganda on the day of presidential elections “to stop people telling lies,” President Yoweri Museveni said in a television interview.
While several Ugandans rushed to download different VPN applications to enable access to social media, millions of people were left out.
A few months later, in June 2016, Ghana followed suit, with the country’s police chief announcing a social media shut down on election day, starting 5:00am to 7:00pm, “to ensure social media are not used to send misleading information that could destabilize the country.”
Similarly, in the run-up to Kenya’s general election in 2017, the government threatened to clamp down on social media users who spread hate speech or fake news that could fan violence in the elections. They, however, acted on a few individuals.
Francis Ole Kaparo, the chairperson of the National Cohesive and Integration Commission, set up to monitor hate speech and incitement warned that social media users inciting violence would be “shut out.”
Other countries that have experienced social media crackdowns during elections include; Ethiopia, Congo-Brazzaville, and Chad.
The BBC reported in 2016, that security is normally cited as the major reason for social media shutdowns ahead of elections in Africa.