Enforcement of Cybercrimes law alarms development partners

Tuesday November 10 2015

In April human rights activists spoke out

In April human rights activists spoke out strongly against the passing of the Cybercrimes Bill saying it would lead to violation of human rights. 

By Katare Mbashiru

Dar es Salaam. Development partners have expressed their dismay over what they say is improper enforcement of the Cybercrimes Act, 2015.

They said in a joint statement issued in Dar es salaam yesterday that there was blatant violation of fundamental freedoms in the enforcement of the law.

They reminded the government of its commitment to applying the Cybercrimes Act in a manner that respects fundamental freedoms and addressing a potentially negative interpretation of the law.

However, the first cases of the law’s application raise concern in view of their potential infringement of fundamental freedoms, according to the joint statement issued by the European Union Delegation and the embassies of Belgium, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Ireland, Italy, the Netherlands, Spain, Sweden, the United Kingdom, Canada, Norway, Switzerland and the United States.

“The Heads of Mission are concerned about the recent arrest of members of staff of the Legal and Human Rights Centre (LHRC) and confiscation of key technical outfits, reportedly motivated by Section 16 of the Cybercrimes Act,’’ the statement says.

A fortnight ago, police officers raided and seized computers from an office used by the Tanzania Civil Society Consortium on Election Observation (Tacceo).

The armed officers stormed the Tacceo office located at LHRC premises in Mbezi Beach, Dar es Salaam, and took away 26 desktop computers, two lap tops and 36 mobile phones, ostensibly as part of an investigation.

Thirty-six data clerks were also arrested and questioned at the Central Police Station before they were released on bail.

Police said the clerks were arrested under Section 16 of the Cybercrimes Act for allegedly collecting and disseminating presidential election results contrary to the law, which states that the National Electoral Commission (NEC) is the only entity with that mandate.

But Tacceo officials said the centre was not tallying results, but was compiling reports from election observers deployed in various regions.

Yesterday, development partners said police stormed the Tacceo office while the organisation was compiling reports filed by national election observers around the country, a task for which LHRC had been accredited by NEC.

“The Heads of Mission recall LHRC is a member of the Tanzania Coalition of Human Rights Defenders,’’ says the statement, adding:

“As spelt out in the African Charter on Democracy, Elections and Governance, the Heads of Mission are convinced of the need to enhance the election observation missions in the role they play, particularly as they are an important contributory factor to ensuring the regularity, transparency and credibility of elections.”

The development partners urged the government to ensure that the implementation of the Cybercrimes Act does not lead to infringement of universal human rights and fundamental freedoms, particularly the freedom of expression and association and the right to participate in free and fair elections.

They also asked the government to respect principles of good governance and the role of election observers and civil society organisations in democratic processes.

The Cybercrimes Act, which came into force in September, just one month before the October 25 General Election, has been roundly condemned by rights activists.

Leading activists have filed a petition at the High Court, seeking interpretation of some sections of the controversial law.

The government insists that the Cybercrimes Act is aimed at curbing child pornography, cyber bullying, online impersonation and electronic production of racist and xenophobic content, unsolicited messages, illegal interception of communications and publication of false information.

THRDC, LHRC and other organisations filed a petition through advocate Jebra Kambole, seeking the amendment of some sections, “which are a threat to free expression online”.

According to THRDC coordinator Onesmo Olengurumwa, the move came after their previous efforts to convince the then President, Mr Jakaya Kikwete, not to sign the Bill into law failed.

Before being enacted, the Bill drew criticism from various stakeholders, including opposition politicians, social media practitioners and human rights activists. Opposition MPs walked out of Parliament’s debating chamber in protest at the Bill.

Rights activists had appealed to Mr Kikwete not to assent to the Bill, saying doing so would discourage citizen journalism and bring into existence “another draconian law aimed at muzzling free expression”.

The Cybercrimes Act, 2015 started to bite earlier last month when a student, Mr Benedict Angelo Ngonyani, was charged with publishing false information that the Chief of Defence Forces, General Davis Mwamunyange, had been poisoned and was rushed to Nairobi for treatment.

Earlier this month, a businessman, Mr Yericko Yohanesy Nyerere, was also charged at the Kisutu Resident Magistrate’s Court with five counts of publishing false information through social media networks. His actions, according to the prosecution, were in violation of Section 16 of the Cybercrimes Act.