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Tanzania restricts social media during election

Delali Sakpa
October 29, 2020

A day after millions of voters cast their ballots in Tanzania's general election, users and watchdogs in the digital space are reporting that authorities are blocking access to WhatsApp and Twitter.

A Tanzanian voter has his finger marked with ink after casting his ballot during the presidential and parliamentary elections
Image: Emmanuel Herman/REUTERS

With counting underway following Wednesday's presidential election, Tanzanians are growing increasingly concerned over the apparent censorship of social media. 

According to reports on the ground, supported by data gathered by the NetBlocks Internet Observatory, major social networks were blocked across Tanzania on the eve of the election, with users relying on virtual private networks (VPNs) to send messages and access information.

The lead up to the election was characterized by vote rigging accusations from opposition parties and independent observers alike, with international media largely barred from gaining accreditation to cover the voting process.

President John Magufuli is seeking a second term in office. During his tenure he has been accused of stifling opposition voices and has introduced laws restricting opposition rallies.

Around 29 million Tanzanians were registered to vote on the mainland, as well as 560,000 in the semi-autonomous region of Zanzibar. 

Read more: Tanzania elections: A choice between Magufuli and democracy?

Citizens cut off from WhatsApp and Twitter 

According to reports from citizens, a number of popular social media platforms such as Instagram and Facebook are currently not accessible in all parts of the country. Many people also say they are unable to use the popular cross-platform messaging service, WhatsApp

"It is not even a censorship; it is a complete communication shutdown," Dar es Salaam-based political analyst Marcell Hamdun told DW. "Twitter, Instagram, Xing and even WhatsApp were not working and there was no way to reach out."

Hamdun believes the internet restrictions are a strategic move on the part of the government to control communications during and after the elections. 

Twitter itself even expressed concern over the restrictions via its official Twitter Public Policy account. 

Read more: Tanzania tightens noose on press freedom, media activists stunned

However, according to independent Tanzanian journalist Maggid Mjengwa, there is no proof that the government is in fact censoring the population. Mjengwa told DW he could still access all social media platforms without difficulty.

Instead, he believes the real issue overshadowing this election is the spread of misinformation over social media.

"The difficulty that we have now as citizens is being able to sort out which information is real and which is fake news," he said. "Especially on social media, where anyone can put out anything."  

Social media is increasingly playing a major role across the political spectrum in many African states, with politicians and governments either seeking to connect with a younger, tech-savvy support base, or using it to more closely monitor citizens.

Read more: Africa's innovative response to internet repression

Network providers under pressure 

According to the Access Now Digital Security Helpline, which offers advice to civil society groups, activists and journalists, the Tanzania Communications Regulatory Authority (TCRA) has ordered the country's telecommunications service providers to suspend access to mass messaging (SMS) and voice services, leaving millions of people without access to reliable communication tools. 

Individual messages containing certain words were also allegedly censored. 

Both AccessNow and the #KeepItOn coalition, a global network of organizations fighting to end internet censorship, say that they are concerned that a total internet shutdown may be implemented as an attempt to curtail Tanzanians' freedom of expression during the electoral process.

They have also called on the TCRA to not to get involved or interfere with the general elections.

Nevertheless, referring to Marcell Hamdun, Tanzania communication companies will now follow this request, as government officials owned most of them.

Tanzanian government officials prepare to cast their ballots at a polling center
Tanzanian government officials prepare to cast their ballots at a polling center in Dar es SalaamImage: REUTERS

Read more: Using social media for good during Ghana's elections

Tensions continue to rise

Meanwhile, the victory of President John Magufuli, whose ruling party has governed Tanzania for more than four decades, seems inevitable.

The opposition was quick to report irregularities in the voting process.  Observers have also expressed serious concerns over the fairness of the election

On the eve of the vote, violence erupted in semi-autonomous Zanzibar, with at least 11 shot dead by police according to the ACT Wazalendo party.

Presidential candidate Tundu Lissu casts his vote at a polling station
Opposition presidential candidate Tundu Lissu casts his vote in SingidaImage: Said Khamis/DW

Results declared by the election commission can not be challenged in court, giving a greater sense of urgency towards poll monitoring efforts. However, the opposition says a number of observers were either turned away from polling stations or detained. Some key independent observers, such as the European Union (EU) were not invited. 

"If this continues, mass democratic action will be the only option to protect the integrity of the election," tweeted Tundu Lissu, the lead candidate of the opposition CHADEMA party.

Lissu survived an assassination attempt three years ago and returned from Belgium in July, where he was treated for serious injuries. He has repeatedly claimed that the attack was politically orchestrated.

Lissu has already urged supporters to stage protests if the election results are announced before the votes are properly counted.