Four bills later: is blogging with statistics in Tanzania now only for adrenalin junkies?

Nipashe, 25/3/15 - "Media Bills" under tight security

Nipashe, 25/3/15 – “Media Bills” under tight security

By Aidan Eyakuze and Ben Taylor *

At first we were excited. Tanzanian media and freedom of information advocates had been waiting for years for the Access to Information (ATI) and Media Services Bill, and the timetable for the latest parliamentary session included both. Were things finally moving?

The timetable also had bills on Statistics and Cybercrime. Was President Kikwete trying to push through a series of new laws before his time in office comes to an end later this year? He has played a leading role on the global stage on these issues, particularly through the Open Government Partnership (OGP), so perhaps this was an attempt to enshrine open government as his legacy.

Then we were concerned. Why were the ATI and Media Bills not available on the bunge website? Why were they being rushed through under certificates of urgency, severely limiting opportunities for consultation and debate?

The Statistics Bill had raised red-flags before – it had been withdrawn by the government a few months earlier under heavy criticism from the opposition in parliament, who argued that the bill effectively made it illegal to publish any statistics in Tanzania without first getting approval from the National Bureau of Statistics.

The Cybercrime Bill was new, but at least it was being shepherded by a politician of the social media generation (January Makamba), who made sure the bill was posted online and invited comments though his twitter feed. It didn’t take long, however, before there were concerns here too, relating both to the bill’s contents and the use, again, of a certificate of urgency.

But let’s look at this dispassionately. What exactly are the concerns here?

1. Access to Information Bill

It does not look good when a bill designed to make information more accessible is itself not accessible. At the time of writing, it has still not been posted on the bunge website, as most bills are, and nor has the responsible Ministry posted it on their website.

It may be that the bill’s contents are progressive and empowering for citizens. But when no-one can see it – even MPs – people will begin to wonder if it could fall into the category of bills that do the opposite of what their title suggests. And when the plan is to present the bill under a certificate of urgency, with very little time for scrutiny, suspicions are raised further. It’s hard to see how a bill promised by the president 18 months ago at an OGP Summit can now suddenly have become urgent.

Voices were raised in protest, including by Twaweza, coordinated by the Media Council of Tanzania. In response, the bill was withdrawn before anyone had seen it.

It reappeared in the timetable for April 1st, hopefully not as an April Fool, for “first reading” (i.e. no longer under the certificate of urgency), and has now finally been made available – see here. (We haven’t yet had time to look at the contents, but will post some thoughts very soon.)

2. Media Services Bill

A version of this bill on media ownership and regulation – the rights and responsibilities of media houses and journalists – first appeared nearly ten years ago, and was rapidly withdrawn following criticism from the media. Promises that it will be re-written and re-presented to parliament have followed at regular intervals ever since.

This time around, the bill’s progress has followed that of the ATI bill – secrecy and a certificate of urgency meant that again, there was plenty of cause for suspicion. It was withdrawn, and finally today presented without the certificate of urgency. As such, the bill is finally now available.

3. Statistics Act

In this case, we have at least had something to look at – a bill was posted online as far back as 2013. And it was passed by parliament last week, despite opposition criticism. But getting a copy of the final bill that includes all amendments – i.e. as passed by parliament last week – has been very difficult. As such it is impossible to know for sure whether the alarming conclusions that have been reported in the media are indeed correct.

The best we can do at this point is to look at the version of the bill that is on the parliament website, dated 2013. Assuming this version is correct, it doesn’t look good.

There are problems around who is allowed to generate statistics and what authorisation they need, and with how the law treats micro-data and whistle-blowing.

But the biggest problem is that the bill introduces severe restrictions on the publication or communication of any contentious statistical information. It makes it illegal (i) to publish or communicate “false” or “misleading” statistical information, and (ii) “without lawful authorisation of NBS,” to publish or communicate statistical information that “may result to the distortion of facts”. Punishments in both cases are harsh – a minimum 12 month prison sentence and/or a fine of over ten million shillings (around $6,000), with no maximums. There are no protections for those acting in good faith.

We all get very frustrated by poor quality statistics, or those that are used, intentionally or otherwise, to mislead people. But the best challenge to bad statistics is scrutiny and challenge: to point out inconsistencies, biases and miscalculations. Indeed, arguments about statistics are an essential part of academic and policy debate. It is hard to see how any serious policy debate can take place when anyone on the losing side of an argument risks spending 12 months in a prison cell.

The key to solving the problem of bad statistics is to distrust anyone who won’t show you their methodology, not making them illegal.

Parliament passed the Statistics Act last week. It now just waits for the president’s signature to become law.

4. Cybercrimes Act

The Cybercrimes bill has also been passed by parliament, and will go to the president for his signature. Again, we haven’t seen the final bill, but the version posted online has attracted considerable debate and criticism, particularly from social media users who see the bill as an attempt to close down online space.

The bill makes it an offence to publish any information online that is “false, deceptive, misleading or inaccurate”. In future, if we make a mistake in a survey report or blogpost – or even make a statement that is considered “misleading” – we could be in line for time in prison.

Further, the bill gives even very junior police officers the power to search and/or seize any computer equipment or data, including the content of messages, with no meaningful justification required or oversight provided. This includes demanding information from internet service providers and mobile phone networks.

High-risk activity

We have not yet been able to read the Access to Information and Media Services Bills, so we cannot yet comment on whether their effect will be to open or close democratic space. And without access to the final versions, as passed by parliament, of the Statistics and Cybercrime Bills, it is impossible to be certain about their contents.

But if the final bills are anything close to the published versions, the implications for anyone involved in research or analysis, journalism or blogging, or even just in social media, are stark. Working with statistics becomes a high risk activity, as does blogging or posting on social media. As for those who do online work with statistics …

The natural response to risk is caution. Academics and researchers will think twice or three times before publishing research that in any way challenges the official line. Journalists and bloggers will ask themselves whether an interesting analysis is really worth publishing. Meaningful policy debate will stop. At best, it will move offline and stop using statistics.

Tanzania has led the way on the Open Government Partnership on the African continent, and is due to host the OGP Africa Summit in May. That is why we find it hard to believe that the Tanzanian government really wants to close down democratic space and to retreat from evidence-based policy debate. We look forward to bold action from the President and parliament to ensure that openness is promoted, protected and preserved both in letter and in spirit.


* Aidan Eyakuze (@aeyakuze) is the Executive Director of Twaweza. Ben Taylor (@mtega) is the author of and works as a consultant for Twaweza.

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