East Africa’s new war on Internet expression

A man in a control center of the NTV channel, which was shut down by the Kenyan government because of coverage of opposition leader Raila Odinga’s symbolic presidential inauguration, at the Nation group media building in Nairobi on Feb. 1. (Baz Ratner/Reuters)
A man in a control center of the NTV channel, which was shut down by the Kenyan government because of coverage of opposition leader Raila Odinga’s symbolic presidential inauguration, at the Nation group media building in Nairobi on Feb. 1. (Baz Ratner/Reuters)

Imagine paying over $900 to a government agency just to be allowed to blog.

This is what the government of Tanzania wants to require of its citizens. The Tanzania Communications Regulatory Authority has given all online content providers until May 5 to submit massive amounts of documentation to earn state approval for what the Internet has always given for free. If you can’t pony up details of shareholders, share capital, citizenship of owners, staff qualifications, training programs and a tax clearance certificate, you risk a fine of at least $2,200 and/or a year-long prison sentence. While the rest of the progressive world is considering blockchain technology or investing in robots, Tanzania’s big idea this year is licensing bloggers.

On other side of Lake Victoria, Uganda’s latest Internet innovation is a plan to tax social media users, supposedly in order to curtail gossip on Facebook, WhatsApp and Twitter. In a letter to the country’s treasury in March, President Yoweri Museveni estimated that imposing a daily fee of 100 Ugandan shillings (about 2 cents) on all users would net almost $400 million a year. This is not just about raising more taxes for a cash-strapped administration; it effectively limits the “opinions, prejudices, insults and friendly chats” that the president railed against in his letter. There was immediate condemnation from rights groups, the opposition and lovers of liberty. But Museveni has been president since 1986; this is unlikely to faze him. He famously shut down social media during the 2016 presidential election, which he won, as usual (but not without controversy).

Kenya has said it would never shut down the Internet during elections. Thus nobody saw it coming when this year it closed four TV stations under the guise of national security. A government that had styled itself as respectful of the rule of law blatantly ignored court orders for a week and deprived nearly a third of the TV-viewing public of independent reporting. Senior government officials have threatened reporters for negative coverage in the past, and a critical longtime cartoonist suddenly lost his outlet.

While these developments in East Africa may appear unconnected, these three so-called democracies are descending into censorship at best and authoritarianism at worst. Not surprisingly, all three countries ranked in the bottom half of Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index for 2017. Only dictatorial governments demand to license bloggers and charge exorbitant fees in order to snuff out ordinary voices from the national discourse. It is a signature move of tyrants to restrict media coverage through intimidation, harassment, and heavy taxes or fines. But when those efforts do not go far enough, a total media or Internet switch-off entrenches an environment of fear among reporters. Cameroon shut down social media and messaging apps for English-speaking parts of the country, and Ethiopia restricted Internet access late last year at the height of the Oromo protests, but these always seemed far away from the relative comfort of Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania. In censoring the Internet and mainstream media, East African countries are reading from the undemocratic playbook of their favorite business partner, China. These actions must be seen for what they are: desperate attempts to crack down on freedom of speech by governments that are not ready to be accountable to their citizens. What are those in power trying to hide?

Not only are these elected governments presiding over a systematic shrinking of the democratic space in East Africa, but all three countries are also engaging in cultural censorship. These crackdowns serve as sideshows to distract the citizenry while democratic gains are rolled back. Kenya just banned a lesbian movie “Rafiki“ ahead of its debut at the Cannes Film Festival because its “promotes” homosexuality. In Tanzania, popular musician Diamond Platnumz was forced to apologize for posting a video of himself kissing a girl on his Instagram page. Uganda created an entire taxpayer-funded committee to find pornography — as if that is the most pressing issue of our time.

Morally inclined East Africans support weak nods to vague “African values” when they involve opposition to homosexuality, “immorality” in the media or perceived neo-colonial influences on Internet forums. Meanwhile, East Africans’ freedoms are fading fast. It is a dangerous time to be someone with an opinion in the region. It won’t be long until jails begin filling up again with political dissidents who oppose the new state creed: Hear nothing, see nothing, say nothing.

Larry Madowo is a Kenyan journalist and news anchor who specializes in technology, current affairs and entertainment

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