In our series of letters from African Journalists, Joseph Warungu reflects on the early effects of Tanzania’s new anti-cyber crime law that recently came into force.
Since social media came into our lives, we’ve become quite chatty.
We’re talking less and less face-to-face. But more and more, finger-to-finger.
And WhatsApp is perhaps one of the most popular channels of the chat. We not only chat, we live our lives online.
Here in Tanzania, a lot of my work at the big TV station I’m attached to, involves WhatsApp.
We share story ideas on WhatsApp.
At the newsroom, we receive scripts and images via WhatsApp.
We commission reporters and review their work via WhatsApp.
If, like myself, you belong to several different WhatsApp groups, your sleep is limited.
That’s because members of the groups will not stop chatting, and when alcohol overtakes them, they’ll shout and sing rowdy songs using WhatsApp emoticons!
However, Tanzania’s social media chat groups have gone a little quiet since the government introduced a new law to tackle cyber crime.
I’m not aware that there are people who navigate their way around social media, armed with Ak47 assault rifles.
So it can only mean Big Brother is watching and listening.
Now if you share images of people who forgot to wear clothes, or if you share lies on social media, or commit other acts deemed to be criminal, you could spend 10 years in jail.
So you can understand why many Tanzanians are choosing to whisper rather than shout on WhatsApp. It also might explain why the chatter has gone down a bit.
The government says the new law will help address new forms of crimes not covered in other laws, such as spreading lies, sedition and pornographic material online.
But critics argue the law will infringe on the freedom of the press and expression. Some complain that the new law, which came into effect less than two months before the 25 October general election, is aimed at silencing voices critical of the government and ruling party.
And last month lawyers representing human rights groups went a step further by filing a case that seeks to review or repeal certain clauses of the act, especially regarding the right to privacy.
Tanzania is the latest African country to introduce a cybercrime law, after Kenya, South Africa, Nigeria and Zambia.
And already a few Tanzanians have fallen foul of the new law and found themselves in court.
It’s hard to see how the authorities in Tanzania will stop its population from sharing crude jokes, ethnic stereotyping and images of their politicians, which have been photo-shopped to depict them as different creatures, including man-eating mermaids.