Despite the impact of technology in increasing access to information, many sub-Saharan African governments limit access to information and information sharing. Tanzania is one such country that has enacted laws like the Media Services Act 2016, the Electronic and Postal Communications Act 2010, the Cyber Crimes Act 2015, and the Statistics Act 2019 to restrict access to information.
Data bundles are popular packages for internet access through mobile devices with a limited number of bytes. In Tanzania, more than 95% of the population subscribes to data bundles. However, telecommunication companies in Tanzania continuously increasing the price of bundles. The increase witnessed in 2021 was particularly excessive and caused the public to complain more strongly than before. The introduction of new internet data packages by telecommunication companies on 2nd April 2021 resulted in nearly 90% of consumers expressing their dissatisfaction. The Media Council of Tanzania (MCT) has recorded an increase in the denial of access to information by considering how important the internet is, in accessing information.
The government says Tanzania has the lowest data price in East Africa, however, by taking the average monthly salary, Tanzanians pay the highest percentage of their income. The data price for Tanzania, Uganda and Kenya are $0.75, $1.56 and $2.25 respectively, the average monthly income are $174, $1291 and $738.
It appears that this is another technique to limit online information sharing in Tanzania, in addition to the laws restricting access to information and information sharing. It is important to note that telecommunications companies cannot raise data prices without government approval, as confirmed by the Minister of Communications and Information Technology, Nape Nnauye, in October 2022.
In Tanzania, media freedom has been a topic of concern due to various laws that restrict access to information, as highlighted in the 2015 and 2019 African Media Barometer reports. The country's government is the largest advertiser, which has made it challenging for journalists to report on it impartially. However, the introduction of the Online Content Regulation in 2018 has dealt a significant blow to bloggers and vloggers who now have to register and pay fees regardless of their earnings. Despite this setback, established media has taken to social media pages to keep the community informed about various issues. Social media pages have also been used to provide live streams of national events and speeches. While the internet has facilitated easy information sharing, Tanzania's media still faces numerous challenges.
The internet has played a significant role in providing journalists and citizens access to information from various sources, including international news and events. Social media platforms allow people to follow live-streamed events to gather stories and express their opinions on multiple issues. Despite the Cybercrimes Act, people in Tanzania still use social media to share ideas and call for change.
While the government responds to some issues published on social media platforms such as Facebook, Jamii Forums, and Twitter. For example, in February 2021, the Tanzanian government lowered data prices in response to public outcry on social media. This move demonstrates that the issue of data prices is not solely the responsibility of companies but also the government's responsibility.
While the internet has facilitated easy access to information, Tanzania's media landscape still faces challenges regarding freedom of the press and access to information.
To fully leverage the potential of internet access, certain key factors must be present, such as adequate internet speed, an appropriate device, an unlimited broadband connection, and daily access, according to the Alliance for Affordable Internet (A4AI).
To achieve this, it is recommended to have 4G internet speed, a smartphone device, and affordable data plans. These factors are crucial in enabling people to access and share information and, ultimately, unlock the internet's full power.
The right to access information ensures universal access to all public affairs-related information and documents, regardless of the individual's status or purpose for seeking such information. While Tanzania has 61 million people, there are about 33 million wireless devices, that is smartphones, laptops and routers. Unfortunately, as of March 2023, only 40% of Tanzania had access to 4G, and 59% had access to 3G. To address this issue, the National Information and Communications Technology Policy of 2016 has set a goal of accessible and affordable internet access to promote socio-economic development. However, the objective of data affordability has not yet been fully realised.
To promote affordable internet services, the government proposed VAT exemptions on digital devices such as smartphones, tablets, and modems in the financial year 2021/22 to encourage internet use and reach 80% of the population by 2025. The then Minister of Information Communication Technology, Dr Faustine Ndugulile, has also recognised the importance of affordable internet services and the internet's role in development, as he tweeted on November 10, 2022.
Improving internet access in Tanzania is crucial for unlocking the internet's full potential and promoting socio-economic development. This can be achieved by ensuring adequate internet speed, appropriate devices, unlimited broadband connections, and daily access, along with affordable data plans.
A4AI is advocating for affordable broadband, stating that the cost of 5GB should not exceed 2% of the average monthly income, which should be achieved before 2026. However, in Tanzania, the cost of data is significantly higher than recommended. The average price for 5GB is 40,960 Tanzanian Shillings (USD17.57), which is 10% of the average income of 410,147 Tanzanian Shillings (USD176). This price is five times higher than the recommended price, and the figures are worse for women and people in agriculture.
Table 1: Average income and per cent of data prices and data bundle to average income
Table 1 shows the average income and data prices by sector. The table shows that the cost of data is particularly high for people in agriculture, where it is 21% of their income. The prices listed are based on figures from September 2022. In 2020, one could buy a 10GB data bundle for 10,000 Tanzanian Shillings (USD4.3), but currently, 9.8GB is sold at 20,000 Tanzanian Shillings (USD8.6), which is double the price in just two years. Prices are also expected to increase again.
Despite public outcry, the government has been reluctant to regulate data bundle prices, citing that it is not a registered service. However, in April 2021, the Tanzania Communications Regulatory Authority (TCRA) responded to complaints by issuing a letter that stopped proposed data bundle price hikes, which would have increased prices by 50%. Rising data prices make it unaffordable and reduce internet users, going against the objectives of the ICT Policy of 2016.
The paper of Eliza T. Dresang has shown that access to information is essential in a democratic country, and failure to keep data prices affordable will limit access to information. Making data prices affordable based on citizens' standard of living will increase the sharing and access to information and increase political freedoms in this age where people share and discuss issues online.
Tanzania has been facing significant challenges in limiting access to information, despite the potential of digital and internet technologies to enhance citizen participation in policymaking and increase access to information. The country has enacted laws that restrict access to information and information sharing, while telecommunication companies continuously increase data bundle prices, which limits online information sharing. However, social media platforms have allowed people to share their ideas and call for change, leading to the government's response to public outcry. The government proposed VAT exemptions on digital devices such as smartphones, tablets, and modems to encourage internet use and reach 80% of the population. While these efforts are a step towards unlocking the internet's full potential, Tanzania still faces challenges regarding freedom of the press and access to information. Achieving affordable and accessible internet access is crucial in promoting socio-economic development in Tanzania.
The views expressed and conclusions made in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of fesmedia Africa, the Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung (FES), or the Media Institute of Southern Africa (MISA).