Three poll workers wearing white shirts and hats sit at a table together and sort through papers

Tanzania's internet restrictions during election are 'despicable,' digital rights activist says

The buildup to Election Day has been marred by widespread internet outages and social media going dark.

The World

Tanzania has a history of free and fair elections, but now, as voters head to the polls to elect their next president, it's not so clear.

President John Magufuli, with the ruling Revolutionary party (CCM) is up for a second term. But the main opposition party leader, Tundu Lissu, with the Party for Democracy and Progress (Chadema), is giving him a fight. So much so that for months, the government has put restrictions on the opposition party.

Earlier this month, the ethics committee of the National Electoral Commission (NEC) suspended Lissu from campaigning for a week for using incendiary language.

Related: Tanzania votes but 'widespread irregularities' are claimed

And Chadema says its party offices in Arusha, in northern Tanzania, were firebombed in August. Meanwhile, dozens of opposition parliamentary candidates were disqualified from running in the general elections for president and members of parliament on Oct. 28. 

On the semi-autonomous island region of Zanzibar, the opposition ACT (Alliance for Change and Transparency) Wazalendo party accused police of opening fire Monday night after residents suspected soldiers of distributing premarked ballots to polling stations designated for advance voting and tried to stop them. Ten other people were seriously wounded, the party said.

Tanzania’s inspector general of police, Simon Sirro, denied any deaths.

The buildup to Election Day has also been marred by widespread internet outages and social media going dark.

Related: The 'economic sabotage' of shutdowns

Berhan Taye, the Africa policy manager at Access Now, a nonprofit digital rights organization, has been following the situation closely from Nairobi, Kenya. Taye speaks to The World's host Marco Werman about Tanzania and the wider trend of internet shutdowns in Africa, particularly during politically charged periods. 

Marco Werman: What sort of shutdowns and censorship have you been seeing around this election in Tanzania? 

Berhan Taye: So, for the past two days, we've seen social media platforms being blocked, particularly WhatsApp, Twitter, Instagram and Facebook, to a certain extent. Numerous websites that are reporting on election fraud or election events are being blocked, numerous media websites are being blocked, as well — and attempts by the government to slow down internet connection, as well, were some of the things that we've seen in the past few days. 

Related: Shutting down social media actually fuels violence 

Is it clear to you that the government in power in Tanzania, the incumbent President Magufuli, is behind all of these communication interruptions? And why are they doing it? 

Yes. So, the incumbent has appointed the regulator, the [Tanzanian Communications Regulatory Authority, TCRA] and the regulator is the one that's doing this. So, the incumbent, technically, legally, is responsible for the censorship. And for the question of why, I think it's very important. Trying to install this a few days before the election really is a clear indication that the government is trying to censor and control the free flow of information. There were numerous targetings of activists, journalists, opposition groups — not just physical attacks, but also online attacks. We've seen so many attempts to take down certain websites, to take down certain Twitter accounts that are not in line with the government's narrative. So, the government is desperately, desperately trying to control information flow and censor. 

Related: Internet shutdowns don't work – but governments keep doing it 

As I said earlier, Tanzania has a history of free and open, democratic elections. So, what changes have you seen during the Magufuli administration? Just in terms of internet freedoms and censorship? 

Tanzania has drastically — within the past five years — deteriorated. So, the situation with online freedoms, for instance, bloggers have to register in Tanzania and pay about $900 in licensing fees. And they're only allowed to do that if the government or the regulator gives you a license. Or, if you have a YouTube channel, if you have a WordPress blog — the blog can even be about your natural hair and how you're taking care of it, or it can be about how you're critical of the government — you need to register and be provided with a license.

If you're going to an internet cafe to use the Wi-Fi or the internet, the cafe is forced to register all people that are coming into their shop and using the internet. You're forced to keep a surveillance camera for one year of everybody that has used the internet in your facility. So, you know, it's just been many, many, many issues of censorship, restriction of journalists, freedom of expression in the country. So, the government, in the past five years, was building up to this moment. It's not surprising that this is all happening and the government is trying to do this on the day of the election. And you can only expect what will happen when the results are announced. 

We've also seen reports of internet outages in other elections in Africa recently — Guinea and Togo, in West Africa, to name two. Is this a trend you're seeing? And are you worried about what this means for other forthcoming elections in Uganda and Kenya, other countries? 

Yeah, definitely. So, I want to be clear that the situation in Tanzania is very different from what we're seeing in Guinea and Togo. Guinea and Togo have never been democratic countries and they're not. But Tanzania used to be. So ... when we had the last election, we were not expecting an internet shutdown. Tanzania used to be a democratic country and where we are now is really insane and it's really despicable.

But ... now, if you look at the African continent, there have been numerous internet shutdowns during just even this year in Togo, Guinea, as you said, Burundi, and many more countries have shut down the internet. One thing that's really concerning here is that the internet is, in many ways, the tool that opposition groups, activists, journalists have to source information, to be able to express themselves and campaign. So, the fact that this is being restricted, especially on Election Day, is really tainting the democratic space on the African continent. So, that is quite concerning. 

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity. AP and Reuters contributed to this report. 

Sign up for our daily newsletter

Sign up for The Top of the World, delivered to your inbox every weekday morning.