Data and privacy are especially important in the context of the anti-gay clampdown in Tanzania. Currently, the digital world and the governments of most countries are setting up measures to ensure data is protected while most African countries are still at the stage that views the internet as a revolutionary weapon. In relation to gender as well, there are policies yet to be implemented, policies not yet brought to the table for discussion and the in-between of policies that are not inclusive or efficient.
We cannot talk about amplifying people’s voices without acknowledging the diversity of people and their unique perspectives.
Impact on data and privacy of all citizens
Recently a prominent governor of the business capital of Tanzania, Dar-es-salaam came on media to publicly announce a 17-person strong surveillance team to track gay people. About potentially facing international criticism, he said – "I prefer to anger those countries than to anger God." The governor also recently called out another celebrity Amba Rutty who was brought to court, failed to meet bond and is still in custody.
Gay communities are in fear since this public announcement of surveillance of all the residents in Dar-es-salaam in the name of "cleaning up the city". The governor emphasized that the task force created was going to be able to identify phones that have sexual contents and social media groups or texts that were promoting gay "behavior or prostitution". Following the release of this information, the Governor has reported on his social media account that he received over 5000 messages with the names of over 100 gays. Homosexuality in Tanzania is illegal according to the outdated laws that the country adopted during colonialism. Tanzania’s 1998 Sexual Offences special provision Act states homosexuality is illegal and anyone who has “carnal knowledge of any person against the order of nature” is punishable by 30 years in prison or a life sentence. This law dates back to the 1945 penal code created under British rule sections 138A, 154, 155, and 157.
The governor emphasized that the task force created was going to be able to identify phones that have sexual contents and social media groups or texts that were promoting gay “behavior or prostitution”.
The gay communities are not only living in fear of being criminalized but are withdrawing from the use of platforms such as social media where the supposed track down is to be conducted. This also brings to light a concern of all citizens being surveilled online in the name of the “anti-gay campaign”. The campaign does not only jeopardize the marginalised communities but also the people at large in Tanzania. The quest of this task force and the audacity with which this campaign is carried out proves that data and the privacy of citizens are not protected. The impact is also the stifling of spaces online that gay, trans and gender non-conforming groups have found to be safer spaces to access information as well as to build their own community of trust.
While conservative and stricter communities applaud this act of the governor based on religion and not human rights, the law is actually giving space for various violations whereby citizen's personal data is now at the mercy of the so-called "task force". In the name of religion and personal views (of the governor), data on gender, digital footprints of users online will now be surveilled in the quest to identify, name and shame some groups, and this has privacy implications in terms of health records, and also collection of data on websites accessed for different issues including for sexual and reproductive health rights. This is proving to be the start of erosion and depletion of the already thin and blurry line between political gains and public interest.
While some religious groups are celebrating this act, they are seemingly forgetting that this act is a leeway to mass surveillance and the first step in monitoring or regulating what citizens do online leading up to the curtailing of citizens’ rights and freedoms both offline and online. Activists and NGO’s working in this sphere also have expressed fear as they have been subject to raids and closure of service in recent years. A report by LGBT Voice, a Tanzanian LGBT advocacy organization established in 2009, found that "LGBT persons in Tanzania continually face stigma and discrimination, harassment and arbitrary arrests, alienation from family and faith, lack of access to social services including health, justice, housing, education and dignified livelihoods".
LGBT persons in Tanzania continually face stigma and discrimination, harassment and arbitrary arrests, alienation from family and faith, lack of access to social services including health, justice, housing, education and dignified livelihoods
Tanzania’s foreign ministry has made an official statement saying that the acts of Governor Paul Makonda are his "personal views" and are not in any way a reflection of the government’s position. In his statement, he stated that the government will continue to "respect and protect internationally recognized human rights". Despite this statement, people have expressed concern as to why the government did not take immediate action when they heard of the campaign. Members of the LGBTQIA+ community have reported feeling unsafe, scared and with nowhere to run to for support at such a time despite the statement of the government, and the police is definitely the last place they can run to. Currently, a wave of uncertainty has placed the LGBTQIA+ communities in fear of violent attacks from police and members of the public, leading to many hiding away.
In November 2018, Tanzania police arrested 12 men for “promoting homosexuality”, with arrests and raids growing in numbers following Makonda’s calling. So far whether or not this campaign is still in progress even after the official statement from the government is still unclear.
This is the beginning of a rampant fire that if not stopped will spread out to the entire country, or Tanzania will join the trend of most African countries that are already predominantly against the LGBTQIA+ communities. The principles of openness, access and inclusivity of the internet are in jeopardy at the moment, proving once again that the citizens are denied the right to exist and be free, both offline and online. Social media platform are generally considered to foster freedom of expression online, and yet here they are being used to infringe the rights of people, more so the minority groups. And state actors who are tasked with the role of protecting human rights are openly stifling internet freedoms. The question is “When the state fails, should it be up to third parties like social media platforms to step up?” With the European Union GDPR taking effect and efforts to ensure their citizens are protected, African governments have to also take actions to ensure that the data of their citizens is protected and their privacy respected.
There should be efforts to ensure that more citizens get access in Tanzania, instead acts of surveillance are increasing the barriers to people getting online, especially minority groups.
Tanzania has an internet penetration of 45%. There should be efforts to ensure that more citizens get access, instead acts of surveillance are increasing the barriers to people getting online, especially minority groups. Majority of such minority groups have said they are withdrawing and self-censoring themselves from using the internet and social media in fear of being traced. This now more than ever should lead to the need to push the government to ensure proper and efficient data and privacy laws are put in place and are respected, with special consideration for minority groups. It’s essential to ensure that rights such as freedom of expression, right to information and the like should be respected and upheld by governments, and this includes all the different shades of the gender and sexuality spectrum.