Tanzania’s anti-gay campaign uses social media for its witch hunt

Tanzanian police have recently announced the existence of a surveillance squad used to identify and arrest men who engage in same-sex relationships. The main focus of this 17-member team is to find and apprehend supposed homosexuals via their online social media accounts.

Homosexuality has been illegal in Tanzania since the 1800s and, to this day, remains punishable by life in prison. The current president, John Magufuli, has held a strong (and terrifyingly negative) stance on homosexuality since his election in 2015. However, the nation’s most recent anti-gay effort was not set up by him, but by Paul Makonda, the regional commissioner for Dar es Salaam, Tanzania’s commercial capital.

The squad, organized by Makonda, will search social media websites for “incriminating” posts, videos, and photos, with plans to round-up those it finds later this week. This initiative has apparently received massive support from Tanzanian citizens, especially in Dar es Salaam.

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However, this is just one chapter in a long story of LGBT oppression in Tanzania, where same-sex relationships are still considered taboo and immoral.

Homosexual relationships are made illegal in sections 138A, 154, 155, and 157 in the Tanzania Penal Code of 1945, and male relationships are punishable by a maximum sentence of life imprisonment. Lesbian relations are not outlawed in mainland Tanzania, but they are in the semi-autonomous region of Zanzibar.

There are no anti-discrimination laws or even efforts existing in the country, and LGBT people are often restricted access to housing, employment, and medical care. As a result, the LGBT community in Tanzania exists mostly secretly.

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Makonda’s focus on the internet is likely due to this secrecy. Social media has allowed for freedom in personal expression that many communities, LGBT included, don’t have when offline. The committee’s social media surveillance will tear down many people’s only access to an accepting community in their homeland.

When many social media services advertise themselves as being platforms for expression, it’s difficult to imagine a government abusing the system to incriminate its citizens, especially the vulnerable members of oppressed groups. This brings into question the responsibility of these platforms. Should social media websites have the duty to protect their users from oppression? Obviously, this job should ideally fall to the government, but it’s an unfortunate reality that this is often not the case. When the state fails, should it be up to third parties like social media platforms to step up? As of now, there’s been no word from any of these sites or services on issue, though several civil rights groups like Amnesty International have publicly protested it.

Of course, this issue is far from simple– we’re not living in a perfect world, and it’s not yet clear how much power a social media would even have in this situation. We’ll see where accountability lies as this story continues to progress. So far, there has been no word on the results of this campaign, but Makonda has said he expects to “round up” hundreds.

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