CIVICUS

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Tanzania

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Last updated on 20.09.2021 at 12:05

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Attacks, pressure on dissent and opposition unrelenting

Attacks, pressure on dissent and opposition unrelenting

Members of the country’s main opposition party, Chadema, arrested just hours ahead of planned conference in Mwanza; Authorities in Mwanza ban “unnecessary gatherings” as a measure to curb the spread of COVID-19, a day before the Chadema party’s planned conference; protesters demanding the release of Chadema party leader arrested; publication and distribution of Raia Mwema, a weekly tabloid, suspended for 30 days

Association

In the early morning of 21st July 2021, police officers arrested 11 members of the country’s main opposition party, Chama cha Demokrasia na Maendeleo (Party of Democracy and Progress, or Chadema). The arrests, which also included the party chairman, Freeman Mbowe, were undertaken in an early morning raid in the city of Mwanza, just a few hours ahead of a planned public meeting by the party to discuss proposals to protect democracy under a new constitution following former president Maghufuli’s regime.

On 26th July 2021, Mbowe was arraigned in court and charged with economic offences and financing terrorist activities between May and August 2020, after he was accused of “plotting terrorist acts including conspiracy to kill government leaders”. Neither his lawyer nor his family were present at the hearing after they were allegedly misled to believe that he had been taken to hospital.

In a statement released on 26th July 2021, John Mrema, Chadema’s director for communication claimed that Mbowe was sick, and the authorities secretly took him to court after telling his family and lawyers that he was being transferred to the hospital for health checks. Separately, the authorities searched Mbowe’s house and confiscated laptops and other devices. Mbowe appeared in court again on 5th August 2021 where the case was adjourned until 13th August 2021 as the prosecutor sought to have the case handled by a higher court. He however failed to appear in court on this new date because of a prison vehicle breakdown, and the court postponed the case to 27th August 2021.

In an interview with the BBC, President Samia Suluhu Hassan stated that as far as she knows “the case was opened in September last year” and that she does not believe the arrest is politically motivated.

Civil society organisations such as Amnesty International however cast doubts on the motive behind the arrests. Deprose Muchena, Amnesty International’s Director for East and Southern Africa said:

“Freeman Mbowe was arrested just hours before he was due to launch a programme calling for constitutional reform in Tanzania. The timing of his arrest raises questions around whether this was a tactic to silence critical voices and the onus is now on the authorities to provide evidence to back up the charges or else promptly release him… Since President Samia Suluhu Hassan’s inauguration, the Tanzanian government has taken some encouraging steps towards allowing greater freedom of expression and association in the country. This case is a concerning development that casts doubt on whether that progress will continue or whether repression will once again be the order of the day.”

Several weeks later, in the latest spate of arrests targeting the opposition, on 4th September 2021, authorities raided the Chadema party offices in Musoma town and arrested nine party members ahead of a planned symposium for constitutional reforms by the youth wing on constitutional change.

Peaceful Assembly

On 20th July 2021, authorities in Mwanza banned “unnecessary gatherings” as a measure to curb the spread of COVID-19. The announcement, which was made by the regional Commissioner of Mwanza region, came just a day before the Chadema party’s planned conference on constitutional reforms mentioned above.

In related developments, on 3rd August 2021, Inspector General of Police Simon Sirro warned individuals or groups who planned to protest the arrest of Mbowe, saying that any group or individuals attempting to “encourage riots” would face the authorities. On 5th August 2021, the Chadema party and its supporters congregated outside a court in Dar es Salaam to demand Mbowe’s release, as they held placards and chanted “Free Freeman”. A group of armed policemen arrested an unknown number of protesters.

In other developments, on 5th September 2021, the Director of Information Services Gerson Msigwa suspended the publication and distribution of Raia Mwema, a weekly tabloid, for 30 days for alleged distortion of information and sensationalist titling of articles. In his statement, Msigwa listed several articles which he said violated journalistic principles. One of these was an article published on 21st August 2021 entitled Maumivu mapya 17’ (17 new pains)” implying that the government is hurting its citizens by imposing 17 levies on various works by artists.

Peaceful Assembly

Article 20 (1) of the Constitution of Tanzania guarantees the right of peaceful assembly. A notification must be provided to the police 48 hours before holding a demonstration.

Article 20 (1) of the Constitution of Tanzania guarantees the right of peaceful assembly. A notification must be provided to the police 48 hours before holding a demonstration. The police can deny an assembly if it considers the assembly is likely to ‘cause a breach of the peace, prejudice the public safety or public order, be used for any unlawful purpose, or for failure to notify in the required time period.’ The Police Force and Auxiliary Service Act 2002 also establish that an assembly of three or more people, who do not obey orders to disperse when requested, would be classified as an “unlawful assembly”. In practice, sometimes security forces used excessive force to disperse peaceful protestors and even arrest protest organisers.

Expression

The constitution guarantees the right to freedom of expression, however this right is undermined by a number of laws including the National Security Act and the recently enacted Statistics Act and Cybercrimes Act that severely curtail media freedoms and access to information.

The constitution guarantees the right to freedom of expression, however this right is undermined by a number of laws including the National Security Act and the recently enacted Statistics Act and Cybercrimes Act that severely curtail media freedoms and access to information. In 2016, the Media Services Act was enacted, replacing the problematic Newspaper Act (1976) and the Tanzania News Agency Act (1976). Despite its stated intention to ‘professionalise’ the sector, new Act contains restrictive provisions and has been heavily criticised by media workers and free expression advocates throughout its drafting. In practice, journalists in Tanzania face harassment, threats and detention. Tanzania boasts several independent newspapers and numerous online news-sites and blogs. Nevertheless, government-aligned media dominates the television space. There are no overt restrictions on access to mobile phones or internet technology, but access to a decent internet connection is out of reach for many. As part of the crackdown on the LGBTI community, in 2016 the government announced that it would monitor the social media accounts of citizens who identify as LGBTI, and their followers. The Media Council of Tanzania, a self-regulation body, has been effective at improving standards of journalism while defending the rights of its members in cases where they have been harassed or attacked. The Council documented 20 freedom of expression violations in 2015.