#InternetIsLife: Online Advocacy to Preserve Digital Civil Spaces in Tanzania

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Internet Shutdowns in Tanzania

For five years under President John Magufuli’s authoritarian government, Tanzania experienced the repression of civil liberties and attacks on media freedom. The passage of restrictive media laws, such as the 2016 Media Services Act, accompanied newspaper bans. The government invoked the Cybercrimes Act to surveil political opponents and journalists, with immense chilling effects. Then, in October 2020, the government shut down the internet and blocked popular social media apps for nearly two weeks leading up to and during the national elections. Although the Electronic and Postal Communications Act passed under Magufuli effectively banned circumvention tools like VPNs, many Tanzanians used them to gain access to the internet.

Following Magufuli’s death in 2021, Vice President Samia Suluhu Hassan became president and called for reinstating access to the media, while contesting the notion of Tanzania’s shrinking press freedom. However, her government has not repealed the laws passed under Magufuli, and it refused to renew one online media outlet’s license following its coverage of a protest in July 2022. Moreover, the government has not acknowledged or addressed the 2020 internet shutdown, with elections looming in 2024 and 2025.

Given the mixed signals, Tanzanian civil society is cautiously approaching the impending elections as a window of opportunity to build coalitions and develop advocacy strategies. Yet despite having experienced a shutdown, civil society and journalists have only limited knowledge about them. Few can clearly distinguish between a government shutdown and technical issues, and few have the technical knowledge to document shutdowns through network measurement.

Additionally, existing laws impede anti-shutdown advocacy, such as the Non-Governmental Organization (NGO) Act, which gives the government expansive oversight over NGOs, and the Statistics Act, which curtails civil society’s ability to conduct research. Many civil society organizations report limited capacity to advocate around internet shutdowns, including due to a lack of localized resources and training.


Change Tanzania’s Key Approach: Online advocacy about preserving digital civic spaces

The advocacy organization Change Tanzania emerged from a popular Twitter hashtag, #ChangeTanzania, launched by activist Maria Sarungi Tsehai in 2012. The hashtag started as a call for national reforms and, with over thirteen million impressions per week, has become a trusted digital space for everyday Tanzanians to advocate on pressing public issues and to demand government accountability. Like its hashtag namesake, Change Tanzania is committed to sustaining a digital grassroots movement that advocates for an open government, including transparency and public participation in governance, and digital rights. Embracing digital tools, the organization uses social media to create online spaces for citizens to engage in political dialogue and online petitions for citizens to lobby the government on public concerns.

Change Tanzania’s anti-shutdown project dovetailed with its established identity as an organization committed to using the internet for civic participation and political advocacy. The 2020 internet shutdown shook civil society and raised key questions about how to mobilize the public on the issue.

“Just being able to tell people to prepare for another possible shutdown in itself was one of the advocacy activities that we thought of. But also to ask, ‘What would you do if that happened?’” says Tsehai, Change Tanzania’s founder.

The organization selected Twitter Spaces, a radio-like service offered by Twitter, as a digital venue for a series of interactive public conversations about internet shutdowns in Tanzania. Tsehai leveraged her massive network of followers, which currently numbers at 1.2 million, and the sizeable follower base of #ChangeTanzania to invite Tanzanian internet users to the Twitter Spaces discussions she hosted.

The Twitter Spaces campaign not only raised Tanzanians’ awareness about the importance of the internet to everyday life, but also shed light on their daily internet uses and, perhaps most importantly, on what happened during shutdowns. “I remember there was one person from Zanzibar who talked about how the Internet shut down during elections. ‘There were atrocities, which we’re not able to document in real-time.’ Because, of course, that was the aim of the government,” recalls Tsehai.

The discussions also served as avenues for sharing resources, like the OPTIMA Resource Library for preparing for and preventing shutdowns, and ideas for how to document and respond to shutdowns. “Our Twitter Spaces are very successful, and we have a lot of engagement from citizens,” adds Tsehai.

Change Tanzania supplemented the Twitter Spaces discussions with a Twitter advocacy campaign. “We found that there’s a lot of misconception, but also deliberate disinformation de-emphasizing the importance of the internet in the lives of people. So with that, we came up with the hashtag that ‘Internet is life,’” recounts Tsehai.

“The first thing we wanted to do is to tell people that internet shutdowns are not only going to affect civil rights activists and human rights defenders, but it’s going to affect your everyday life,” she says. Using creative visuals and messaging, the #internetislife campaign emphasized the impact of shutdowns on Tanzanians’ everyday online activities, including communication, information-seeking, registering for governmental services, and engaging in commerce. The campaign also invited young Tanzanians to contribute to the hashtag by listing examples of their daily internet uses and to imagine what would happen if internet access were disrupted.

The campaign’s focus fell on young Tanzanians and early adopters because, as Tsehai notes, “they are the ones the government is targeting when it’s shutting down the internet because they are the ones who will be on the streets protesting. This sort of shutdown not only impacts the younger generation, but it’s also targeting them.”

Finally, Change Tanzania also hosted digital workshops for civil society that offered anti-shutdown resources, familiarized participants with distinct types of shutdowns, as well as VPNs and other circumvention tools, and explored advocacy strategies. Successful trainees received small grants for projects they pitched, including developing local shutdown preparedness resources and organizing smaller preparedness workshops for their own communities.

Organizing the workshops was challenging due to ongoing government scrutiny and the lack of trust among civil society organizations typical of a closed civic space, both of which necessitated an intensive application screening process. However, the net result was a success. “The participants became much more confident,” says Tsehai about their knowledge about and advocacy around internet shutdowns, “and they keep looking to us for more training.”

Tsehai’s priority is increasing public awareness. “You never know when you reach that saturation point when you feel like enough people know about it. One of the challenges is how do we get the people to really focus on what matters. We’ve not really reached that. I think people are still thinking of shutdowns as a theory that something will happen. I am sure one of the things we can achieve in the short term is to make sure people have the knowledge of partial internet shutdowns and how to circumvent them. I think we’ve reached a good point in that.” She adds: “The second big achievement for us would be [to prepare people for] the day, not if but when the government decides to completely shut down the internet. Because it is at that time of darkness when most of the atrocities and crimes against humanity are done.”

Tsehai views her advocacy work as a sustained, “continuous activity” rather than a project with start and end dates. “There is no end to it. We need to start thinking ahead,” she argues, stressing the upcoming elections in 2024 and 2025. Change Tanzania plans to continue the Twitter Spaces discussions and the #internetislife campaign, raising public awareness about the importance of internet connectivity—and the impacts of shutdowns—in the country.