Creating a meme on Twitter could send you to jail in Tanzania

What’s a meme?
What’s a meme?
Image: Reuters/Tiksa Negeri
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The administration of Tanzanian president Jakaya Kikwete has been heavily criticized at home and abroad for actions that are threatening to roll back years of progress on press freedoms and it could get worse.

Things began with the passage in parliament in late March of the Statistics Act that analysts say is in danger of criminalizing journalism making it illegal for anyone to publish or communicate statistics unauthorized by the National Bureau of Statistics (NBS), a government body. According to the new law, Tanzanian journalists using data from government sources before they are made public or information unapproved by NBS could spend up to 12 months in jail.

Essentially, with this legislation, it now means that any intellectual endeavor that uses statistics has to be sanctioned by the government. This is a dangerous precedent to set.

On the regulatory front, the government pulled two bills from parliamentary debate in March that could deepen press freedoms in the country.

It should be noted that President Kikwete has shown a commitment to transparency in the past, signing up to open government initiatives and promising the passage of a Freedom of Information Act.

Also, over the last decade, Tanzania’s media space has opened up considerably. From mostly government and ruling party run media houses, the country has evolved to possess one of the most vibrant and diverse media environments in Africa.

But the current environment is deeply unfriendly to a flourishing free press. While the constitution guarantees freedom of speech, certain laws put significant limitations on an open media. The National Security Act makes it a criminal offense to reveal information the government deems a ”classified matter.”

Such powers have led to the banning of several newspapers in the last few years. The most recent is  the Kenya-based regional newspaper the East African which was pulled off the shelves for what many suspect has to do with a cartoon published in the paper that a government spokesman said demonstrated bad taste and disrespect to the president.

Meanwhile, social media and the blogosphere have become an important avenue of public discourse in the country. But a new cyber crimes act introduced recently could end up limiting speech and the free spread of information online.

And an amendment introduced before the vote clarifies that charges will only be brought in instances where “intent to defame, threaten, abuse, insult, cause public panic, or encourage criminal offense” has been established. Yet what happens now to satire or comedy in general? A lot of humor happens on social media. Does it mean that someone could go to prison for creating a meme on Twitter or on Facebook?

Heading into a general election in October, these attempts at tightening the media space are raising concerns it could be extremely tough for journalists to cover the campaign. Hopefully, cooler heads will prevail before then and that the president will not sign these laws. This is not a legacy President Kikwete wants to leave his people as he retires next year.