Access to social media, particularly messaging services, was reportedly disrupted across Tanzania on Tuesday, October 27, as early voting began in the country's general election. Multiple users reported that they have been unable to access Twitter from the country without the use of a virtual private network (VPN) since Tuesday morning, whilst the messaging service WhatsApp was restricted to text messages, with users unable to download image or video files. Internet monitoring organizations later stated that access to Twitter, WhatsApp, Instagram, and some Google services, including Gmail, was partially or completely unavailable on all of Tanzania's major mobile data network providers, including Vodacom, Airtel, Tigo, Halotel, and ZanTel.
The disruptions came as early voting was held in the semi-autonomous region of Zanzibar, a day ahead of the national polls on Wednesday, October 28. Early voting on the islands had been introduced by the government for the general election, ostensibly in order to allow security personnel and government employees to perform their duties throughout election day without having to take time out to vote. However, opposition groups have accused the government and Zanzibar Electoral Commission (ZEC) of using early voting on the islands to facilitate vote rigging amid a lack of transparency over the process and staged a number of protests across Zanzibar on Tuesday to disrupt early voting. Opposition groups have since claimed that at least nine of their supporters have been killed in clashes with security forces in the region on Monday night, October 26, and Tuesday, mainly on the island of Pemba. Police officials denied that any fatalities occurred in the clashes, but confirmed that 42 people had been arrested on Pemba for throwing rocks at security forces and a further 72 on Zanzibar for attempting to disrupt voting on Tuesday.
Further disruptions to social media, mobile data, and other communications networks are likely during the election on Wednesday, with a realistic possibility of disruptions continuing in the near term ahead of the announcement of results. Last week, the Tanzania Communication Regulatory Authority (TCRA) was reported to have written to mobile communications operators directing them to suspend bulk SMS services during the election period. However, it is currently unclear whether other communications services will be suspended on Wednesday.
President John Magufuli and the CCM are widely expected to win the general election on Wednesday, with the opposition being weakened by restrictive laws, internal divisions, and intimidation and harassment from the current government. However, elections in Tanzania have previously been marred by violence and unrest, particularly in opposition strongholds and on Zanzibar, and there is a realistic possibility that these areas will become increasingly volatile during and immediately following election day.
Those in Tanzania are advised to monitor developments regarding communications service disruptions and should review communications and business continuity plans in light of the outages.
Those in the country are further advised to remain apprised of the political situation, avoid all public demonstrations and election-related events as a precaution, avoid discussing politically-sensitive topics in public or on social media, and heed all directives issued by the local authorities. Travelers should exercise increased vigilance on election day and in the following days and minimize time spent in the vicinity of polling stations and political party offices, particularly during the announcement of results.
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