By Emma Okonji
Disturbed by the passage of the anti-digital rights bill across some African countries, some Civil Society Organisations (CSOs) and Human Rights Defenders in the continent have called for the repealing of the law, describing it as huge restriction of the right of citizens to freedom of expression.
Citing a recent case in Tanzania, where the country’s parliament passed into law on June 27, 2019, the amendments to the written laws despite pushback from civil society and human rights defenders, the CSOs called on African governments to consider passing bills that promote freedom of speech and association.
The Written Laws (Miscellaneous Amendments No. 3 of 2019) bill was made public on June 19 under a “certificate of urgency” to speed up its passage. The discussions concerning the bill began in Tanzanian Parliament on June 21, 2019. Members of civil society raised their concerns over the short notice to provide feedback on the bill on the morning of June 21.
While condemning the bill, Paradigm Initiative, a digital rights organisation, which has operations in Nigeria, Tanzania and other regions of Africa, stated that if such bill was to be passed, it would restrict the right to freedom of expression, assembly and association, and placing impermissible restrictions on civil society organisations’ operations.
The Executive Director, Paradigm Initiative Gbenga Sesan, explained that the laws proposed to be amended included the Non-Governmental Organisations Act 2002 (NGOs Act), Society Act, Trustees and Incorporations Act and The Companies Act 2002 among others. These four laws, according to him, were among the main laws which govern Civil Society Organisations (CSOs) in Tanzania hence raising concerns over whether this was targeted as well as the previous laws to further compress democracy in Tanzania.
Director of Programs at Paradigm Initiative, Tope Ogundipe, said: “On June 21 and 22 2019, some CSOs managed to submit their views before Parliamentary committees in Dodoma, and days after, the Parliament passed it with only a handful of recommendations being carried forward’’.
According to Ogundipe, “The role of civil society in fostering development and protecting human rights can not be underestimated. CSO’s have not only provided jobs but have contributed to positive development in various sectors of the economy and wellbeing of the nation.”
In a statement issued by the Tanzania Human rights defenders coalition (THRDC) along with over 300 other CSO’s, it stated that the urgency of passing the bill did not give reasonable time for the public to comprehend the implications of such a law. In attempts to push back, movements such as Change Tanzania published an online petition to collect signatures to lobby the parliament to give more time for comments before passing. However despite collection of over 900 signatures in a span of two days, the petition fell on deaf ears.
According to Sesan, the need to stop anti-digital rights bill became necessary to dissuade other African countries from passing such bill. Sesan added, “The country has passed a series of oppressive laws in a short span of slightly over a year when they first released the changes to the Electronic and Postal Communications Act (EPOCA) in March last year.”
This was followed by amendments to the Statistical Act and then the Political Parties Act that was passed earlier this year as well, not giving enough time for concrete responses from stakeholders. While the county is approaching elections, the role of civil society at this crucial time is jeopardized, Sesan said and advised other African countries including Nigeria, not to pass bills that are anti-people.
“For the citizens of Tanzania there is no safe space both offline and online. With content online subject to fall under the Cybercrime Act or seen as a violation, shows there is no room to express views. With the coming in of such new laws, Civil Society groups that have been working towards seeking redress and legal strategies to protect human rights including digital rights are left exposed. The role CSO’s have in building communities of trust both offline and online and keeping citizens engaged in matters of direct concern via media and other means will also be challenged. The possibility of some NGOs failing to comply with new laws will make the struggle to protect civic spaces an even more challenging battle,” Sesan said.