Online platform feature restrictions by internet service providers in Tanzania, October 27, 2020. Photo via NetBlocks.org.
Back in August, digital rights activists speculated that Tanzania may restrict internet services — especially popular social media platforms — ahead of the general elections scheduled for October 28.
Sure enough, with just 24 hours to go before election day, internet users in Tanzania and on the semi-autonomous islands of Zanzibar, have reported limited access to internet services including social media platforms such as WhatsApp, Facebook and Twitter.
READ MORE: Writing toward freedom: Politics and digital rights in Africa
On election eve, Netblocks confirmed the intentional slowing down of the internet known as “throttling”:
Confirmed: Widespread disruption to social media registered across #Tanzania on eve of elections; high impact to Twitter, WhatsApp, Instagram and Google services on Vodacom, Airtel, Tigo, Halotel and Zantel; incident ongoing 📉 #TanzaniaElections2020
📰 https://t.co/LEIpXAlEhf pic.twitter.com/2WRsPSZ2VU
— NetBlocks.org (@netblocks) October 27, 2020
The limited services left millions without reliable internet to communicate with friends and family, and grappling to secure virtual private networks (VPNs) to access the internet:
Internet restrictions in #Zanzibar #Tanzania are real. Numerous friends, colleagues, contacts currently unable to reply to my messages and finding alternatives through people with functioning vpns to communicate. #ZanzibarLivesMatter #ZanzibarLivesMatters
— Franziska Fay (@Franziska_Fay) October 27, 2020
Tuno Nassoro implored TCRA not to switch off the internet:
Internet imeanza kusumbua karibu wiki sasa please @TCRA_Tz tunaomba msituzimie tuna mawasiliano mengi muhimu na kuna maisha mengine yanafuata baada ya kesho. @ZainaFoundation.#KeepItOnTz
— Tunu Nassoro (@tunu_nassoro) October 27, 2020
The internet has started to become troublesome for close to a week now. Please @TCRA_TZ we beg you, do not switch off the internet. We have many important communications and there is another life that follows after tomorrow.
Twitter Public Policy tweeted its statement on the matter:
Ahead of tomorrow’s election in #Tanzania, we’re seeing some blocking and throttling of Twitter. #TanzaniaDecides2020
Internet shutdowns are hugely harmful, and violate basic human rights and the principles of the #OpenInternet #KeepItOn https://t.co/Q2SJfsFUiD
— Twitter Public Policy (@Policy) October 27, 2020
According to Paradigm Initiative, the Tanzanian government does not have the authority to fully shut down the internet. But the Electronic and Postal Communications (Online Content) Regulations, 2020, “gives the Tanzania Communications Regulatory Authority (TCRA) power to order service providers to block or filter content if the TCRA deems such content is prohibited, says a human rights,” according to lawyer Daniel Marari.
On October 21, the TCRA instructed telecommunications companies to “suspend bulk SMS and bulk voice calls” for a two-week period that coincides with the general election, allegedly censoring keywords and names of certain opposition candidates:
#Tanzania orders telecoms to temporarily suspend bulk SMS and bulk voice calls from Oct 24 to Nov 11, 2020 ahead of Oct 28 general elections. There are reports that names of opposition leaders; Tundu Lissu, Maalim Saif can’t go through. #TanzaniaElections2020 #TanzaniaDecides pic.twitter.com/NoVoISi1dt
— The Observer (@observerug) October 26, 2020
The letter, signed by Eng Jame Kilaba, the TCRA’s director-general, said that the “continuation of services during the electoral period is likely going to jeopardize the security and safety of the country,” according to The Observer.
Access Now called this a “severe breach of human rights”:
BREAKING: Tanzania’s government has ordered telcos to block bulk SMS messages and filter particular content relating to the presidential election.
The election is this Wednesday.
People will not be able to communicate. This is a severe breach of human rights. #KeepitOn
— Access Now (@accessnow) October 24, 2020
Ahead of general elections tomorrow, the Zaina Foundation has monitored the potential for an internet shutdown in Tanzania since April, and have launched a Twitter campaign called #KeepItOnTz.
The move to limit internet services in Tanzania is part of a larger trend across Africa where governments choose to interfere with users’ rights to freedom of expression — particularly during events of major political significance.