Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Closing online TV channels smacks of intimidation

Tanzania Communications Regulatory Authority

Tanzania Communications Regulatory Authority (TCRA) director general James Kilaba.PHOTO|FILE 

By Nuzulack Dausen

Last week, the digital community in Tanzania was hit by yet another tough decision by the government. The national communications industry regulator suspended five famous online video channels – Ayo, Michuzi and Global – pending a regulatory framework to govern the operations of online TV.

In suspending the channels, Tanzania Communications Regulatory Authority (TCRA) director general James Kilaba quoted section 13(1) of the Electronic and Postal Communications Act (Epoca) of 2010 that requires broadcasters of any kind to acquire a license to broadcast their content.

The letter ordered owners of the online TV channels to stop broadcasting until the government came up with regulations to govern the new technology.

Mr Kilaba, and by extension the TCRA’s, decision is a blow to the freedom of expression. It is also a setback to Tanzanians who have been or are planning on investing in online content provision.

While he might be having good intentions to enforce the cited law, it is the timing that is wrong.

This unprecedented move reveals a hidden motive against the digital media fraternity. It doesn’t sound like per se a bid to enforce the law. Time shall tell.

Most of us know that online broadcasting didn’t start this year, nor last year. YouTube has been there since 2005, and became famous in Tanzania five or so years back.

Epoca has also been there for more than five years. Why did TCRA suspend broadcasts of these online TVs this February, not three years ago? Interestingly, many government institutions have been using these platforms to disseminate information to the public. There is no doubt that even the President’s Directorate of Information has been posting online videos too, and we have been watching them regularly.

Some government institutions have sometimes been delaying press conferences just to wait for Ayo, Michuzi or Mwananchi Digital. People in the media know this.

If the government was aware all this while, that online TVs were operating against the law, why use the ‘illegally-operating’ media platforms? With this ban, there are so many unanswered questions.

Will the new regulations affect citizens who broadcast live social events like weddings, birthday parties or church sermons? Does the government require individuals to register their YouTube, Periscope and Facebook accounts?

If anything, this decision has once again exposed the government’s slowness in moving with technology. This is not the first time the government is caught napping in regulating technological innovations. The Cybercrimes Act and the Electronic Transactions Act were only enacted in 2015, seven after the technological applications of mobile money and social media became a global hit.

Two years ago, drone makers were also still asking the government to provide regulations that will guide their operations. Since then nothing much has been forthcoming as far as regulations governing drones are concerned.

What is known is that Zipline, a drone making company, is planning to use the unmanned craft to supply medical products, including blood. Late introduction of laws and regulations shows the government is reactive rather than being proactive to technology.

The reactive tendency by the government discourages innovation, and is holding back President John Magufuli efforts to transform Tanzania imto an industrialised nation.

Way forward

TCRA needs to allow all online television broadcasters to operate because denying them that is to infringe their constitutional right to free speech and access to information.

The owners of online television channels have come out to declare their readiness to register, but there is no regulation. Whose fault is it anyway?

Of major concern is the fact that it may take too long for the government to come up with the regulations. This means Tanzanians will be deprived of information from the famous video platforms.

The only solution is to allow the TV channels to operate because there are other laws in place that govern the production of online content, like the Cybercrimes Act, 2015 and the Media Services Act, 2016.

It’s not too late for the TCRA to revise its decision for the good of democracy and digital technology in the country.

Nuzulack Dausen is a senior business and technology writer with The Citizen