The cyber laws conundrum: Mistaking hate speech in Africa and abroad

07Jul 2018
Miki Tasseni
The Guardian
The cyber laws conundrum: Mistaking hate speech in Africa and abroad

LEGISLATION is being raised, or has already been put on the statute books in East African countries on the use of cyberspace or, in short, internet content, with varying degrees of controls being imposed in each specific context.

In Tanzania the most notable feature of this situation is the recent closure or suspension of services of Jamii Forums, arguably a vital aspect of elite social and political life since mid-past decade and is now out of reach.

This wasn’t surprising as it was likely face regulatory constraints like the tell-all newspaper Mwanahalisi that fetched outright ban on various accusations, like slanted news, unbalanced facts; the rest.

One informative perspective on this situation was put across lately by an analyst on the regional weekly published from Nairobi (which also had a spell of removal from the stands on account of an offensive cartoon in the final year of the fourth phase presidency, not a draconian atmosphere as some would argue).

The basic idea splashed on a headline was that ‘cyber laws should protect us from hate speech, not silence us’ and it was clear that the author, a Nairobi-based political publicist, could not make out what ‘hate speech’ implies, or varies by context. The way the idea was constructed was other hate speech, not anti-regime hate speech.

Hate speech in the ‘blogosphere’ that most African intellectuals are used to or familiar with is US or Western online content as a whole, and here ‘political correctness’ is a cultural attribute that may ill fit in an African situation.

Content with no public harm in the West can be destabilizing in Africa, and much of Western concerns that create ripples are totally irrelevant here, like the fantasy or hate mongering ‘MeToo’ hashtag. Yet it isn’t seen as hate speech in the US as political correctness says it isn’t.

An example of the sort of hate speech that is now being curtailed in blogs and cloud talk-shops was illustrated in a move by a respected non-governmental organization, to award a human rights prize posthumously to the late Rev. Christopher Mtikila, for his vast efforts in advancing the cause of human rights in Tanzania.

Yet one doesn’t need to conduct any research to realize that the late agitation maverick was visceral about any presence of Zanzibar in the Union Government, terming second phase president Ali Hassan Mwinyi a ‘foreigner ruling over Tanganyika.’

He single handedly came close to breaking up the country due to tirades of hate speech, his influence spreading into the legislature and upon a mild pretext of Zanzibar becoming an observer member of the Organisation of Islamic Conference (OIC) (as some of its members weren’t majority Muslim, like Uganda but willing to attend its conferences) sought to tear up the country.

Only the painstaking efforts of founding father Julius Nyerere stopped the program on its tracks, after Parliament endorsed it.

When Mwalimu Nyerere died the maverick agitator had grotesque words to speak on his memory, blasting even his remains, which the state could no longer tolerate and he was sentenced to one year in prison, possibly a dark moment for human rights in Tanzania, for that NGO.

Even in less direct terms, a major political party used to go around declaring in all seriousness (if not morbidity) that hell will break loose in the country, that it will be ungovernable, and blood will flow.

Those who have lately been issuing reminders never said a word about that kind of hate speech; all of us knew multiparty democracy had its excesses, even plentifully.

Some were thus convinced that curbing such expression is the only way genuine harmony can be assured, not sit on a time bomb.
It is hence adapting to an atmosphere where one can’t make statements of this sort that appear to be curbing freedom, but really it is the freedom for excess, anarchy that is at issue. It is much less of freedom itself, but its excesses,

There were other instances where respected organizations including some religious denominations used platforms for preaching to announce patently false poll results, at one time declaring (after the 2010 general elections) that opposition candidate Dr. Wilibrod Slaa had obtained 60 per cent of the polls and State Security imputed the votes to the ruling party candidate.

When asked to show where were MPs corresponding to such a harvest of presidential votes (meanwhile as few controversies were on the ground or in courts on vote counting in parliamentary or ward constituencies) they had nothing to say, except that which makes sense to their own folk and ilk.

Eliminating or curbing anti-state speech has had its excesses in the country arguably, but those who abet forces that will use any methods to take over power aren’t well positioned to make pointed declarations on morality.

Take their 2010 polls candidate, for instance. Didn’t the churches recall an exit made in the past from accusations of sleaze though they were never made public? What was the newfound confidence that things would go well with such hands?

The reason why many are lamenting the curbing of expression in any manner is that the danger of anti-regime hate speech has never been seen on its proper breadth, but some excesses were visible already.

In Uganda a parliamentarian ‘predicted’ that a popular MP who avidly supported the motion to remove the age cap on the presidency would be ‘punished’ early June and he was surely assassinated in that period, a week or so later.

When things reach that stage, that the Mafia work on the internet and tell the faithful of their plans, to bless that event beforehand, does one need to be surprised if curbs will then be applied?

Are we thus civic enough in our intentions to use broad freedoms without danger to peace and harmony in society, or is addiction with seeing theft and plunder as ‘CCM’ characteristics, not ailments that need strong government, right?

Mwalimu Nyerere, in August 1978, told a University of Dar es Salaam audience that ‘every country has a government it deserves.’ Right?

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