Licence to blog: Will 'Swahili WikiLeaks' have to close?

By Dickens Olewe
BBC News

image copyrightAFP
image captionOfficial figures say there are 23 million internet users in Tanzania out of a population of 55 million

Bloggers in Tanzania will have to pay $920 (£660) for the privilege of posting content online, according to new regulations.

The government says it wants to protect the East African nation from "lies" being spread online though critics see it as a way of muzzling freedom of expression.

What are the rules?

All online publishers including bloggers, vloggers and podcasters have up to 5 May to register and are required to pay $480 for a three-year licence, plus an annual fee of $440.

Radio and TV stations must also apply for licences to share their content online.

To get a permit, applicants must fulfil a list of requirements, like submitting staff CVs and reveal their future plans.

They will also have to keep a record of visitors to their site.

The regulations say the aim is to clamp down on "hate speech" and indecent material with the same standard being applied to online users.

They broadly define a blog as "a website containing a writer's, or group of writer's own, experiences, observations, opinions including current news... images, video clips and links to other websites".

Any breach is punishable by a fine of not less than $2,000 or imprisonment for not less than 12 months, or both.

How have bloggers reacted?

Tanzania's Bloggers Network is worried about the impact the new regulations will have on its 150 members.

The group's chairman, Joachim Mushi, says that they are still consulting with the communication authority to try and get them to clarify some of the clauses.

image copyrightKrant Mwantepele
image captionBlogger Krant Mwantepele says he will have to fire some of his writers

Mr Mushi says that the blogging network, which was formed in 2015, requires its members to adhere to a code of practice which he says is heavily borrowed from the one that governs the media.

One of the country's top bloggers, Krant Mwantepele, says that the new rules "affect everyone who publishes online even people who use social media sites like Instagram, Facebook or Twitter".

He says that if there's no change in it he will have to lay off some of his staff.

His site, Mwanaharakati Mzalendo, was launched in 2010, employs three contributors, three staff writers and covers politics and social issues.

It attracts an average of 50,000 unique views every day.

More about Tanzania

The blog has won three Tanzanian awards for its political and news reporting and turned Mr Mwantepele into a sought-after trainer on how to make money using online platforms.

"I'm also a social media influencer, I work with different brands but since we heard about these new regulations, everyone has been unsure about what to do, so we are still waiting."

He told the BBC that if the law was not rescinded or watered down, it would render many young people jobless.

"There are many university graduates who have taken up blogging because there are no jobs, these regulations will affect them. I see a situation where Tanzanians will have to rely on foreign blogs for news about what's happening in our country."

He says that he will pay the requisite fee to obtain a licence but that he will stop covering politics and will be cutting staff.

Is 'Swahili WikiLeaks' threatened?

A clause in the regulation which might end up taking down Tanzania's most popular and influential website, Jamii Forums, requires publishers to store their contributors' details for 12 months.

image captionDiamond Platnumz has already had to withdraw an Instagram post because of the new rules

Mike Mushi, the platform's co-founder says: "This goes against how we operate. We allow our users to post anonymously so we will have to review whether we can continue operating."

He says the popular messaging platform attracted 3.7 million users just last month.

"We receive almost 20,000 posts in a day on various topics, that's a lot to deal with," he says in response to a requirement in the new regulations that publishers pre-moderate their users' comments before publishing.

Mr Mushi and his co-founder, whose site has been dubbed the "Swahili WikiLeaks", are currently dealing with three cases in court in relation to charges of obstruction of investigation after they refused to hand over details of their users to Tanzanian authorities under an existing law.

Media lecturer Edgar Ngelela from the University of Dar es Salaam says clarity is needed.

"We have different type of bloggers, some post hard news, others use it to post personal diaries.

"Some also share the same posts on platforms like WhatsApp. So the regulations are unclear on who it affects or maybe it affects everyone."

Is fake news a problem?

President John Magufuli, nicknamed "The Bulldozer", says he aims "to weed out" what he refers to as a "disease".

"People think that what they see online is true. I don't know where this disease has come from but this is because we don't control these online platforms."

The government also says that it wants to protect the nation's "culture".

Mr Magufuli's has had a no-nonsense approach to running affairs since coming to power in 2015, but critics have also accused him of trying to silence dissenting voices.

The regulations are an addition to existing media laws which have led to several newspapers to be suspended or banned, the BBC's Sammy Awami in Dar es Salaam reports.

Last week authorities arrested the country's top musician - Diamond Platnumz - after he posted a video clip of himself playfully kissing a woman on Instagram, which authorities said was indecent.

Information Minister Harrison Mwakyembe said the government was also monitoring other artists who had been engaging in "decadent behaviour", and warned they would be brought to justice irrespective of their popularity.

These online regulations follow the arrests of several people charged with "abusing" the president for criticising him on Facebook and WhatsApp.

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