Tanzania: Dissidents and critics bear heavy brunt of increasing restrictions on expression

Tanzania continues to suffer a dramatic decline in press freedom under President John Magufuli, as basic freedoms are restricted through repressive laws and presidential decrees. At least three newspapers were banned in 2019 for alleged criticism of the President, while violation of LGBTIQ rights continues. In June 2016, President Magufuli announced a ban on political gatherings until 2020 – the ban remains in force with general elections scheduled for October this year. In practice, it has affected opposition parties wishing to hold rallies.


Exiled opposition leader comments on upcoming elections

On 2nd April 2020,exiled opposition leader Tundu Lissu spoke out against President Magufuli in the lead-up to the October 2020 elections and questioned whether free and fair elections will be allowed, considering Magufuli’s assertion that there will be no opposition in the upcoming vote and threats to imprison critics of his government. He called on the international community to diplomatically censure the government and impose travel bans and asset freezes on officials who have carried out political suppression. Lissu has been in self-exile in Belgium since 2018, after he was flown from Nairobi in 2017 for further treatment following a failed attempted assassination in Tanzania where unknown gunmen shot him 16 times.

Freedom of expression amid Coronavirus outbreak

On 23rd March 2020, journalist Khalifa Said was dismissed by Tanzanian media house Mwananchi Publications a day after he published a post on his twitter account criticising President Magufuli’s response to the coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak. Said had challenged Magufuli’s insistence that citizens continue to attend places of worship amid the outbreak and had called on citizens to organise rallies to get the government to respond to their demands.

In separate developments related to the above, on 22nd March 2020, the Prime Minister of Tanzania, Kassim Majaliwa released a statement warning the public against publishing, forwarding or creating “fake news” and “misinformation” about the coronavirus in the country. He directed the Tanzania Communications Regulatory Authority (TCRA) to follow up on those who fabricate news through social media, threatening prosecutions.

Journalist released from detention after plea bargain

On 24th February 2020 journalist Erick Kabendera was released after seven months in prison, following a plea bargain with the prosecution. Kabendera had been charged with money laundering, tax evasion and leading organised crime – all non-bailable under Tanzanian law. The journalist, who has a reputation for reporting on issues deemed sensitive, including regarding public authorities, has written for several British publications, including The Independent, The Guardian and The Times, as well as for newspapers in Tanzania and the wider region.

As previously reported on the Monitor, his arrest was seen as an example of rising repression against the press and critics of Tanzania's President John Magufuli. It showed Tanzania’s continued trend of arresting and detaining journalists in 2020, despite international concern raised throughout 2019, including from the African Commission on Human and People’s Rights (ACHPR), who expressed concern over “the unprecedented number of journalists and opposition politicians jailed for their activities” in November 2019. Conditions of the plea bargain are exorbitant and it remains unclear whether Kabendera will be able to pay the agreed fines, which amount to thousands of US dollars.

While welcoming the news about his release, Deprose Muchena, Amnesty International's Director for East and Southern Africa, noted:

“Tanzania must stop misusing laws to violate people’s rights to liberty, freedom of expression and information, peaceful assembly and association. The country must publicly commit to ensuring that everyone can freely exercise all their human rights and stop the politically motivated persecution of dissidents and journalists like Erick Kabendera.”

Rights commission warns against use of hate speech

After much delay, new members of the Commission on Human Rights and Good Governance (CHRAGG) were appointed in late 2019. Following months of initial work, on 5th February 2020, they raised concern about the use of “hate speech” by some politicians against those with opposing ideologies, saying that it signalled a violation of human rights and good governance pillars. They called on political parties to prohibit the use of inflammatory language by their followers, which may lead to human rights violations.

CHRAGG is accredited with A-status by the Global Alliance of National Human Rights Institutions (GANHRI).

Application against draconian online content regulations quashed

In January 2020, the High Court sitting in Mtwara quashed an application by civil society organisations, including the Legal and Human Rights Centre, trustees of the Media Council of Tanzania and the Tanzania Human Rights Defenders Coalition, challenging the Electronic and Postal Communications (Online Content) Regulations (EPOCA). As reported previously on the Monitor, the regulations came into force in March 2018 and give the Tanzania Communications Regulatory Authority wide discretionary powers in regulating content published online, thus impacting bloggers, radio and TV stations streaming online, and other online platforms.

Plans to block unregistered sim cards cause concern

In mid-January 2020, government officials announced plans to block all sims cards not biometrically registered by 20th January 2020 in what they said was a bid to tackle escalating cases of cybercrime. The registration exercise aims to link sim cards with either a national identity card or foreign passport, and fingerprints. There was concern however from citizens who worried that those who cannot or are afraid to register risked losing out on vital communication channels. It may also pose a potential risk for human rights defenders (HRDs) and members for the LGBTIQ community, who try to use untraceable SIM cards as a protection mechanism against state surveillance and monitoring. Opposition party members also expressed concern that this would hamper campaigns ahead of the October 2020 general elections.

Opposition party member receives death threats for criticising government policy

In late January 2020, opposition party member of parliament Zitto Kabwe of the Alliance for Change and Transparency (ACT) party received death threats and was targeted by the ruling party for his criticism of a controversial US$500 million World Bank education loan. Kabwe had written to the bank opposing the loan, citing the government’s failure to lift its education ban on pregnant students and adolescent mothers, worsening gender inequality and human rights violations in Tanzania. In a parliamentary session held on 31st January 2020, the speaker of the Assembly called Kabwe’s letter ‘treasonous’ while Abdallah Bulembo from the ruling Chama Cha Mapinduzi (CCM) called for Mr Kabwe's killing. On 30th January, the World Bank board of directors postponed their vote on the loan following concerns raised in Kabwe’s letter.


Human Rights Watch report documents systematic attacks on LGBTIQ community

On 3rd February 2020, Human Rights Watch published a report on Tanzania’s anti-LGBTIQ crackdown and its impact on the right to health. The report titled “If We Don’t Get Services We Will Die’: Tanzania’s Anti-LGBT Crackdown and the Right to Health” documents a systematic crackdown by the government on the LGBTIQ community and community organisations that support them, since 2016.

The report found that organisations have been barred from assisting LGBTIQ people, meetings have been raided by police and drop-in centres have been closed down. There are also claims that LGBTIQ activists and lawyers have been subjected to forced ‘anal examinations’, a brutal technique that purports to seek "evidence" of same-sex intercourse, but is unscientific, invasive, and amounts to a form of torture or cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment.

Neela Ghoshal, senior LGBTIQ rights researcher at Human Rights Watch said:

“The Tanzanian authorities have orchestrated a systematic attack on the rights of LGBT people, including their right to health. Manufactured threats around the so-called ‘promotion of homosexuality’ have displaced best practices and evidence-based approaches in guiding HIV policy in Tanzania... authorities should ensure that not one more Tanzanian is arrested for being gay or trans – or for attending an HIV education session.”

Government official banned from travel to the US for targeting LGBTIQ community

On 31st January 2020, a Tanzanian official who launched a surveillance squad dedicated to hunting down LGBTIQ people was banned by the US from entering the country. The US state department said Paul Makonda, the Regional Commissioner (administrative chief) of the capital, Dar-es-Salaam, was involved in "gross violations of human rights". US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo tweeted that Mr Makonda's ban came amid concern about the "deteriorating" state of human rights in Tanzania. As previously reported on the Monitor, in 2018, Makonda announced plans to form a government taskforce to hunt down people believed to be from the LGBTIQ community, although the government distanced itself from those remarks, terming them “personal opinion”.

Groups call for release of detained activist

On 21st January 2020, human rights groups called for the release of human rights activist Tito Magoti, who was arrested on 20th December 2019 in Dar es Salaam in what is believed to have been retaliation for his human rights work. He is charged with non-bailable offences of economic crimes: leading an organised criminal racket, possessing a computer program designed to commit an offence, and money laundering. Magoti works for the leading Tanzanian non-governmental organisation Legal and Human Rights Centre (LHRC) who said that the police questioned Magoti about his online activism and his involvement with other rights activists and opposition members.

Seif Magango, Amnesty International’s Deputy Director for Eastern Africa said:

“It is outrageous that the Tanzanian government continues to abuse the criminal justice system by detaining critics on unbailable offences for weeks and months on end under the guise of investigating cases. This is an outright abuse of due process of the law and a perversion of justice.”

He remains in pre-trial detention at the time of writing, following repeated postponement of his hearings. The next hearing is expected to take place in mid-April.

Peaceful Assembly

On 10th March 2020, a magistrate’s court in Dar-es-Salaam sentenced eight senior members and one former senior leader of Tanzania’s main opposition party, CHADEMA, to five months imprisonment, or fines totalling 350 million Tanzanian shillings (USD 152,000) on charges including sedition and unlawful assembly. The nine defendants were found guilty on 12 out of 13 charges relating to a demonstration which they held in February 2018 which had been banned by president Magufuli. According to UN Human Rights Office, the sentences denote an ongoing strategy by the government to use the criminal justice system to target its critics by imposing large fines or jail terms on opponents, journalists and civil society figures.