Nairobi, Kenya, Apr 14 – Tanzanians have to pay $900 for a permit to blog, a staggering amount for many in the country, say critics who see the fee as a further bid by President John Magufuli to gag dissident voices.
A sweeping new law covering a broad range of online activity was signed in mid-March.
Under it, the operators of online platforms such as blogs, podcasts and live streaming services will have to pay stiff fees to operate.
To launch a blog, for example, a user must pay over two million Tanzanian shillings ($900, 750 euros) in fees to get a license. A renewal fee of over $400 is due every three years thereafter.
“The simple creation of a platform represents several months’ salary for a blogger,” said Arnaud Froger of the press freedom watchdog Reporters Without Borders (RSF).
“Tanzanian authorities want to get rid of the blogosphere and they couldn’t have chosen a better way to do it,” he said in a statement.
“The climate of fear and self-censorship that has already affected traditional media is now reaching online media, where many journalists found refuge.”
Tanzania has a vibrant blogging community, whose members report or comment extensively on news, entertainment and music, as well as sport, lifestyle and travel.
Under the new law, a blogger can face fines of up to $2,200 for publishing content considered “indecent, obscene (or) hate speech”, or even just for causing “annoyance”.
The legislation broadly defines a blog as “a website containing a writer’s or group of writers’ own; experiences, observations, opinions including current news, events, journals, advertisements and images, video clips and links to other websites”.
– Getting rid of critics –
Magufuli, 58, took office in 2015 as a corruption-fighting “man of the people”.
But he has earned criticism for his authoritarian leadership style, with detractors saying he has clamped down on opposition and freedom of expression.
Under his rule, numerous opposition members have been arrested or jailed, critical media shut down and people arrested for perceived “insults” to the president.
On February 26, a Tanzanian court handed two five-month jail terms to two opponents of the regime, including a lawmaker, for allegedly defaming the president.
A new law introduced in 2016 required journalists to register themselves as such, seen as a further bid to curtail the media.
In March police arrested a driver and a farmer accused of calling for anti-government protests on social media.
For many in the online media fraternity, the latest law governing web content is just another nail in the coffin of media freedom.
“Most bloggers will not be able to find this money. But the problem is bigger than the financial aspect,” said Maxence Melo, founder of the Jamii Media blog who has previously been taken to court for refusing to reveal the identity of a critical contributor to his site.
“The government’s objective is to get rid of sites which are already considered critical. Because paying a fee doesn’t mean you will have a licence, the relevant government department can still refuse this permit.”
During a public discussion last week over the new law, the secretary general of the Tanzania Bloggers Network, Frantz Mwantepele, said many would struggle to “fulfill the conditions in the law”.
“The fees that we are supposed to pay for licenses far surpass the revenues of many bloggers,” he said.
Mike Mushi, who also works for Jamii Media, asked why the government was imposing fees when it is not the owner of the internet as a means of publication.
When it comes to traditional radio and television “we know that the government is the owner of the frequencies they use. But is the government the owner of the internet?”