Killing of student prompts united civil society response to closing space

Civil society unites against violations of fundamental freedoms

In a show of unity and outrage by Tanzanian civil society, 110 organisations came together on 21st February 2018 to call on the government to put an end to human rights violations in the country. In a strongly-worded statement, the group, under the banner of the Civil Society Organisations (CSOs) Directors Forum, decried the:

"violation of human rights, insecurity of the nation, curtailment of freedom of expression, limitation on media freedom, CSOs shrinking space, non observation of rule of law in decision making process, curtailment of democracy as well as different elections which are unfair and have a lot of aftermath on citizen’s lives. This situation has to a large extent been contributed by different recent astonishing incidents that have never been, and were never expected to happen in the history of this country. These incidents includes armed attacks, atrocious killings, injuries, enforced disappearance, brutality, arrests, malicious prosecutions targeting human rights defenders (HRDs), journalists, politicians and even normal civilians of this nation".

The catalyst for this intervention was the shooting of student Akwinlina Akwiline who was killed by a stray bullet as police fired on a group of opposition demonstrators. 

Expression

Concerns over an increasingly hostile space for free expression have grown after two opposition leaders were jailed for five months each for insulting Tanzania's President John Magufuli. On 26th February 2018, Reuters reported that CHADEMA MP Joseph Mbilinyi and local party leader Emmanuel Masonga were jailed for insulting the president during a political rally in December. The use of insult laws in this way has long been criticised for being arbitrary and unacceptable in a democratic society. 

This latest sentencing, along with the recent murders of two leading opposition politicians, Godfrey Luena and Daniel Johns, has led to concerns over a rise in politically-motivated violence under the Magufuli government. On 23rd February, the European Union Delegation in Tanzania issued a statement in which it expressed serious concerns over the recent rise in violence targeting the political opposition and human rights activists. The Delegation called for an impartial investigation into recent incidents, including the tragic killing of student Akwilina Akwilini.

Tanzanians who are not activists or members of political parties have also been impacted by violations of freedom of expression. In late January 2018, The Citizen reported that a local man in Mbulu district in the north of the country, Eliud Petro, had been ordered to be arrested after making unsubstantiated allegations about the Tanzanian president while in the company of some other people. 

Civil society coordinating the fightback against closing space

Civil society organisations (CSOs) in Tanzania have come together to discuss a coordinated effort to combat closing space for civic activism in Tanzania. Among the strategies agreed upon by the group of ten CSOs at a meeting on 14th February were increased public engagement and renewed advocacy efforts aimed at the repeal of restrictive laws. 

Additionally, three Tanzanian NGOs - the Media Council of Tanzania, Legal and Human Rights Centre, and Tanzania Human Rights Defenders Coalition - have filed a complaint at the East Africa Court of Justice on 13th March, stating that the 2016 Media Services Act  violates international conventions ratified by the regional bloc of the East African Community. 

Space for musicians also closing

Musicians and artists are also feeling the consequences of less tolerance for free speech in Tanzania, with authorities recently banning several songs in order to protect "cultural norms". Songs that have been banned include one which expresses regret that former President Jakaya Kikwete has left office and others which contain sexual innuendo. Local rights group-  the Legal and Human Rights Centre - stated that some of the songs on the banned list do reflect cultural norms, but that "there are [a] few others which were criticising the conduct of some of the authorities and advocate for change".

Association

On 7th March 2018, student activist and human rights defender Abdul Nondo was abducted and driven approximately 500km to a remote area. His whereabouts were unknown until seven days later when he made his way to a police station, where he was detained. No charges are known to have been brought against him. 

Civil society in Tanzania remains concerned about such attacks on individual human rights defenders, and also about the increasing constraints on the space for CSOs in the country. In their 21st February statement, the 110 CSOs outlined their collective concerns, including:

  • A hostile environment for CSOs characterised by threats of being banned;
  • Damage to individual CSOs' credibility through harmful rhetoric from public officials; 
  • Difficulties for CSOs accessing the media "due to a requirement of obtaining a permit from the Ministry of Regional Administration and Local Government";
  • Complications for CSOs that want to carry out projects in different regions of the country, as taht also requires a permit from the above-mentioned ministry; and
  • CSOs are also unable to issue independent election-related reports due to the requirement that they should first submit the reports to the Electoral Commission for review before they are published.