Dar es Salaam, Tanzania

Tanzanian authority scours social media to punish gay men and sex workers

Image credit: Dreamstime

A committee has been established in the largest city in Tanzania to scour social media profiles to identify and punish people considered sexual deviants, as well as their followers.

In 2016, Paul Makonda, administrative chief of Dar es Salaam – Tanzania’s former capital – commented that: “If there’s a homosexual who has a Facebook account, or with an Instagram account, all those who “follow” him – it is very clear that they are just as guilty as the homosexual.”

Now, Makonda appears to be following through with his threat, establishing a committee dedicated to scouring social media for gay men, sex workers and online fraudsters. The committee is made up of 17 people, including police officers, lawyers and doctors. They will search social media platforms – based on tips from the public – attempting to identify gay Tanzanians to arrest and punish.

“These homosexuals boast on social networks,” Makonda said last week, according to the AFP. “Give me their names, my ad-hoc team will begin to get their hands on them next Monday.”

Within a day of the announcement, the committee had reportedly received 5,763 messages from the public condemning 100 different people.

Following Makonda’s announcement, the US embassy in Tanzania has issued an alert on its website warning Americans planning to visit the country to check their own social media profiles and “remove or protect images and language that may run afoul of Tanzanian laws regarding homosexual practices and explicit sexual activity”. They have advised that US citizens detained in Tanzania ensure that the US embassy is aware of their situation.

Meanwhile, the European Union has recalled its Tanzanian envoy, and has announced that it will review its relations with the country in response to Makonda’s scheme.

Same-sex sexual acts are illegal in Tanzania (with male-male sexual acts carrying a maximum penalty of life imprisonment), while social disapproval is among the highest in the world. Former UK Prime Minister David Cameron had previously threatened to withhold or reduce aid to countries which continue to punish homosexuality, to which Tanzania’s foreign minister responded that accepting homosexuality was against the country’s “moral values” and that it would do without foreign aid if necessary.

Current President John Magufuli, who identifies as a devout Catholic, has led a continued crackdown on homosexuality since coming to office in 2015. The Tanzanian government has since banned HIV/AIDS outreach projects, closed private HIV clinics, and ended US-funded programmes providing free sexual healthcare for the gay community, despite warnings that this could put the wider population at higher risk of infection. Forced anal examinations – intended to identify sexually active gay men – are still practised, despite being widely condemned as a violation of human rights.

Since October, a renewed campaign against homosexuality threatens anyone campaigning for LGBT+ rights, including lawyers representing gay clients who have been brutalised.

The foreign ministry of Tanzania, however, has stated that Makonda’s surveillance effort would not be replicated across the country. In a statement, it said that: “The government of the United Republic of Tanzania would like to clarify that those are [Makonda’s] own views and not the government position.”

In May last year, a popular lesbian dating app, Rela, was suspended in China, leading to speculation that it had been blocked by China's strict Internet censors following its role in organising a small LGBT+ awareness event.

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