Will She or Won’t She: Preparing for Internet Shutdowns in Tanzania During Political Uncertainty

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When Vice President Samia Suluhu Hassan stepped into the presidency in March 2021 upon the death of President John Magufuli, civil society representatives reported feeling “cautiously optimistic” about the prospect for positive democratic change. Magufuli’s five years of authoritarian governance from 2015-2021 included the passage of a collection of draconian laws restricting civil liberties and media freedom. That pattern escalated the day before the October 2020 elections, when the country experienced its first internet shutdown. Whatsapp, Facebook Messenger, Telegram, and Twitter were blocked, and remained blocked through the elections, for at least 11 days (Links to OONI data WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger and Telegram).

There have been some promising signs, including the lifting of a ban on four newspapers and occasional official statements promising a reform of the 2016 Media Services Act. In one of her first speeches as President, President Hassan said media outlets should be reopened, and she pushed back against the notion of Tanzania’s “shrinking press freedom.” Despite these small acts and rhetorical overtures, none of the major laws passed under Magufuli (including the Cybercrimes Act, the Media Services Act, and the Electronic and Postal Communications Act) have been amended or revoked. Journalists and activists have continued to be arrested for defamation, impersonation, and the publication of false information under the Cybercrimes Act. According to Change Tanzania, there is also “a close relationship between privacy and censorship in Tanzania,” as the government uses the Cybercrimes Act to gain access to the private communications of key political figure and journalists, perpetuating a climate of fear and self-censorship. An online media outlet was refused its license renewal after it covered a protest in July 2022. As one activist noted, “media and activists have figuratively been taken out of “prison,” but the laws that put them in prison are still there.”

Stuck in this democratic limbo, Tanzanian civil society faces significant hurdles in its push for serious and long-lasting policy reform. Yet, opportunities may open, if, after years of self-censorship and fear of reprisal, the Hassan government is even nominally more receptive to civil society operating openly and engaging the government on media and internet-freedom issues.

This is the context in which we conducted an advocacy needs assessment to better understand, during this moment of change and uncertainty, what is possible for Tanzania’s civil society to prepare and anticipate future internet shutdowns and to engage in longer-term advocacy and coalition-building to prevent future shutdowns and censorship. This in-depth needs assessment is part of a series of reports focusing on civil society needs in four distinct countries as it relates to preparing for and preventing internet shutdowns. These assessments sought to better understand the nuanced ways in which internet shutdowns occur in different countries, including:

  • Patterns and trends in technical mechanisms used in specific places to shut down the internet;
  • Political and social triggering events and government for shutting down the internet;
  • Perceptions of the wider impact of shutdowns on economies and societies;
  • Differential impacts that shutdowns have on specific vulnerable groups and marginalized populations;
  • Laws and regulations that contribute to an enabling environment for internet shutdowns and inhibit advocacy related to censorship and internet shutdowns;
  • Perceptions about future risk of internet shutdowns; and
  • Perceptions about civil society preparedness and advocacy capacity in areas such as awareness-raising and stakeholder engagement, documentation of impact and network measurement, circumvention strategies and protection of vulnerable communities, and legal capacity to engage in litigation.
“The key thing is capacity -- we need to be trained and made aware of the dynamics of internet 
shutdowns, and how to respond and even address shutdowns.”

According to experts and advocates who participated in this study, government leaders have not acknowledged the 2020 shutdown nor indicated any regret or desire to avoid such practices around elections in the coming years. With local and general elections in 2024 and 2025, now is the time to determine advocacy strategy, build coalitions, prepare vulnerable communities, and make the case to powerful actors that internet shutdowns are neither necessary nor proportionate.

Tanzania is also one of the countries in the world where the use of VPNs and circumvention tools is effectively banned. The Electronic and Postal Communications Act prohibits the “use or distribution of tools that allow people to access prohibited content.” In the context of internet shutdowns, especially those that target social media platforms, VPNs and other censorship circumvention tools are vital for staying online and are nevertheless used by many Tanzanian internet users. As discussed later in this report, fears and uncertainties related to the legality of VPN use complicate advocacy efforts.

This research seeks to provide an in-depth examination of how civil society assesses risk and how it plans for potential shutdowns. Drawing on a survey of civil society stakeholders as well as a co-design workshop, this report outlines how civil society perceives the threat of internet shutdowns in Tanzania and how it understands the legal and technical mechanisms for such cutoffs, the social and economic impact of the 2020 internet shutdown on key communities, the key laws and norms enabling shutdowns in the country, and the resources required to prepare for and advocate against future shutdowns.

This research is meant to not only inform global audiences about specific shutdown threats and civil society perceptions in these countries, but also to serve as a starting point to collaboratively develop national advocacy strategies and engage in deliberate outreach, training, and resource development to target identified challenges and needs in each country. The recommendations included at the end of the report are based on collective reflections and determinations of key needs and strategic priorities of the Tanzanian “Prepare & Prevent” network, coordinated by Change Tanzania and the Tanzania chapter of the global nonprofit Internet Society. These recommendations are currently being implemented through Internews’ OPTIMA project, and we encourage interested parties to contact the authors to participate in coalition activities and to support this work.