It’s time to talk about online abuse in Tanzania

Imani Luvanga, journalist and digital rights advocate, has seen how online abuse is destroying the lives of journalists and ordinary citizens in Tanzania. As 16 Days of Activism against Gender-Based Violence comes to an end, she asks Tanzanians to start the conversation about online abuse and digital rights.

In your view, how big is the issue of digital abuse in Tanzania?

Imani Luvanga: I think the problem of digital abuse is very big in Tanzania, but not many people will not speak out. I’m the host of a podcast on digital rights, and because of my role many people have started writing to me, sharing personal stories of digital abuse that they have faced. But they are not willing to step forward. Some people are afraid that speaking about it in public will trigger a conversation about them. In other cases, people don’t want to speak about the abuse in public, because it will make them remember the abuse that they went through, which will make them become more stressed. But what I can see is that many people are experiencing digital abuse in my country.

Many of the examples of digital abuse have to do with body shaming. Women are coming to me and saying: “I posted this picture and people started judging me, saying I’m too fat or I’m too thin, that I’m not beautiful, that I’m too black.”

Doxing is also a big issue, where someone is sharing the person’s personal information online. It could be their ID card or their address.

During the 16 Days of Activism against Gender-Based Violence, which is soon coming to an end, I have been very active on social media, posting stories and information about cyber bullying, especially of women. But I’ve started receiving messages from Tanzanian men who were saying: “Why do you only advocate for digital rights of women? Because even us men, we are experiencing cyber bullying issues too, but we are afraid to speak up.”

For one of the men who reached out to me and told me that he had experienced abuse online, I asked him: “What did you do afterward?” And he just responded: “I didn’t report this because of our culture. Because I have witnessed how one of my friends went to report a similar issue to the police, and the police were saying: ‘how can a man come to the gender desk and report this. Men should be strong and they don’t have to come and report such issues.’”

For me, this was an example of why many men are dealing with mental health issues. I think sometimes it is caused by our culture and traditional belief that men should always be strong, that men should be the head of the family. So even when they pass through different challenges, they don’t feel that they can speak up.

Can you tell me about your own experiences with digital abuse?

Imani Luvanga: Last month, I was in London for a conference and I managed to meet this Tanzanian journalist who works at the BBC. He is someone who inspired me when I was a young journalism student, and I was so grateful to meet him. So after I had met him, I shared the experience online and uploaded a selfie photo of us. 

Immediately after, one person commented on Twitter asking what happened after the photo was taken? What hotel did you go to? Another man wrote another comment saying: “This man is not good. I’m sure you went somewhere to have sex”. I was affected by the comments. Luckily, I have a digital rights education and I know how to protect myself online. I deleted the comments and blocked the people, but you cannot control the stress, and I had to be on a panel discussion the day after, and I felt a little bit distracted.

How big is the issue of online abuse among journalists in Tanzania?

Imani Luvanga: I’m working as a trainer giving training to journalists on digital rights. Many journalists I meet share personal stories of digital abuse. Many of them tend to realise after the training that they’ve experienced this themselves. They go: “Now I realise that this was bullying or this was doxing.”

In Tanzania, the experience is a bit different from other countries, because most of those people who are experiencing digital abuse in Tanzania don’t see that it is happening to them. Probably most of them do not share the stories because they don’t know it’s happening. But in reality they’re experiencing this, and sometimes they are even bullying others unknowingly.

The problem is that if we as journalists don’t understand the topic and the terms, if we don’t know the difference between cyber bullying, gender-based violence and doxing, how can we then go back to our communities and address these issues? So I think there is a need to keep training journalists in online safety and gender-based violence issues.

Do you think online abuse targeted at journalists in Tanzania is a democratic issue? 

Imani Luvanga: I see journalists who lose confidence to use their freedom of expression online as a result of the abuse. Some journalists will even become insecure when they go to interview people. 

Let me share with you the story of a young journalist who came to me one day. Some people took her phone and disappeared with it. She had some nude pictures on that phone, and then they started telling her how they were going to release the pictures if she didn’t give them money. So from there onwards, the journalist stopped using social media for one year. She ended up leaving journalism as she couldn’t see herself doing journalistic work. Even though those pictures have never been released, she shared with me that she feels like she’s not mentally okay because she knows that any day those pictures could be leaked.

Why is it important to you to take about digital abuse?

Imani Luvanga: Sometimes it is also challenging. But I think it’s important for someone like me to speak up about the issue. When I go to train people and share my own experiences, people come to realise that journalists are also facing these challenges. I want to show to people that even after being violated, even after receiving hate, I can still be online. I still have digital rights. I can still enjoy digital opportunities. So I hope it gives people the courage to stay online.

We also need to see changes on a government level in Tanzania. As we’re speaking, we don’t have a data protection law. But the bill has been sent to parliament, so let’s hope that we will soon see changes on this topic.

What role do you see tech companies playing in fighting online abuse?

Imani Luvanga: I think the tech companies should take action immediately when hate speech or online abuse is reported to them. One of the concerns I have been receiving from people in Tanzania is that when people are reporting accounts, when people are reporting comments, it takes the social media companies too long to respond.

I’ve been really impressed with a new reporting tool from Thomson Reuters which protects journalists from online abuse by filtering the bad comments and the hate speech. 

I think Twitter and other platforms should support such small and big initiatives to keep people safe online so that everyone will have digital rights and will feel safe online.

What is your advice for journalists who are experiencing online abuse?

Imani Luvanga: I want to tell people that if they have been violated, they should never feel guilt. This is a big issue but it shouldn’t take people offline. For many of us journalists, this is where we get sources for our stories. This is where we get news tips. 

But at the same time, I want to tell people that they should be prepared, especially women journalists, because some people will try to attack you with nothing. You have done nothing wrong. You have posted a good story. But some people will come and attack you anyway. So I think we should prepare our minds that this might happen to us. I think this will also reduce our mental health issues when we experience online abuse.

It’s also important to add that we should not respond to trolls, because when you respond to them, you just foster the conversation and this will make them continue to attack you. We have to use the blocking button. We have to delete comments that are inappropriate or hateful.