Tanzania: Climate of fear, censorship as repression mounts
Tanzania’s repression of the media, human rights defenders and opposition parties has intensified since 2015, Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch said in two separate reports released jointly today.
Both reports found that President John Magufuli’s government has adopted or enforced a raft of repressive laws that stifle independent journalism and severely restrict the activities of nongovernmental organizations and the political opposition.
“As President Magufuli marks four years in office next month, he must carefully reflect on his government’s record of ruthlessly disemboweling the country’s human rights framework. His government must repeal all oppressive laws being used to clamp down on dissent, and urgently end human rights violations and abuses,” said Roland Ebole, Amnesty International’s Tanzania researcher.
“The regressive policies and actions of the authorities have stifled the media, sown fear among civil society, and restricted the playing field for political parties in the lead-up to elections,” said Oryem Nyeko, Africa researcher at Human Rights Watch. “With only a year to go, this government needs to reverse these patterns of abuses and demonstrate a genuine commitment to the rights to freedom of expression, association and peaceful assembly as protected in the constitution and under human rights treaties to which Tanzania is a state party.”
The report by Amnesty International, “The price we pay: Targeted for dissent by the Tanzanian State” and the one by Human Rights Watch, “As long as I am quiet, I am safe: Threats to Independent Media and Civil Society in Tanzania” were researched and documented separately but their findings were similar.
Human Rights Watch interviewed 80 journalists, bloggers, lawyers, representatives of nongovernmental organizations, and members of political parties. Amnesty International interviewed 68 government officials, representatives of non-governmental and inter-governmental groups, lawyers, academics, religious leaders, and diplomats, and reviewed court decisions, national laws, government notices and orders.
They found that the president and senior government officials frequently made anti-human rights statements, at times followed by cracking down on individuals and organizations. The remarks, coupled with arbitrary arrests and threats to deregister non-governmental groups, has stifled independent reporting by journalists and public discussions on human rights violations ahead of the upcoming elections.
Both organizations found that Tanzanian authorities undermined the rights to freedom of expression and association by enforcing new and existing repressive laws and regulations governing media, non-governmental organizations, and political parties.
Since 2015, the government has stepped up censorship by banning or suspending at least five newspapers for content deemed critical. These include Tanzania’s major English language daily newspaper, The Citizen, in 2019, and four others in 2017. The Zanzibar Broadcasting Commission also shut down a radio station, Swahiba FM, in October 2015 because it reported on the annulment and subsequent re-run of the 2015 elections.
The authorities used the 2015 Cybercrimes Act to prosecute journalists and activists for social media posts. In November 2017, a court in the capital Dar es Salaam convicted Bob Chacha Wangwe, a human rights activist, for “publication of false information,” under this law because he termed Zanzibar a colony of mainland Tanzania in a Facebook post. His conviction was overturned by the High Court on the grounds that the court had not properly determined elements of the offence.
The Electronic and Postal Communications (Online Content) Regulations, adopted in 2018, require anyone with a blog or a website to pay hefty license fees of up to 2.1 million Tanzania Shillings (more than USD900). This law also broadly restricts online content and permits surveillance of cybercafés without judicial oversight.
Tanzania’s government also controls independent research and public access to independent statistical information using the 2015 Statistics Act, denying citizens alternative sources of independently verified information. While amendments to this law introduced this year removed criminal liability for publishing non-official statistics, the authorities still control who can gather and disseminate statistical information and determine what is factual or false.
“We see a dangerous escalation towards repression in Tanzania. The authorities are denying citizens their right to information by administering only those “truths” sanctioned by the state,” said Roland Ebole.
In 2018, the Commission of Science and Technology (COSTECH) prevented Twaweza, a Tanzania-based organization, from publishing its Sauti za Wananchi (Citizens Voices) survey, which had found that President Magufuli’s public approval rating had dropped significantly. In 2017 COSTECH and the Home Affairs Ministry prevented Human Rights Watch from holding a news conference on its report detailing abuses of Tanzanian migrant domestic workers in Oman and the United Arab Emirates.
In January 2019, Parliament amended the Political Parties Act ushering in yet more wide-ranging restrictions on the rights to freedom of association and peaceful assembly. The amendments gave the Registrar of Political Parties sweeping powers to deregister parties, demand for information from political parties, and suspend party members. It also introduced a requirement for organizations and individuals to get approval before conducting civic education, infringing on citizens’ rights to access information.
In July 2016, President Magufuli announced a blanket ban on political activities until 2020 in contravention of the country’s laws. The ban has been selectively applied against opposition politicians, several having been arrested and prosecuted on trumped-up charges. In 2017, unidentified assailants shot opposition MP Tundu Lissu, and in 2018, unidentified assailants killed two officials of the main opposition party, Chadema, Daniel John and Godfrey Luena. Although police say they are investigating these killings, no arrests are yet to be made.
“The Tanzanian government must immediately and unconditionally drop all charges against journalists and politicians brought simply for exercising their rights to free expression and association,” said Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch.