Authorities embark on major crackdown on expression amid COVID-19 and ahead of elections

The state’s response to the 2020 COVID-19 pandemic has been heavily criticised, as President John Magufuli called on citizens to turn to prayer, without enforcing a lockdown or physical distancing rules. Magufuli’s directive conflicted with earlier calls by the Prime Minister, Kassim Majaliwa, to ban public gatherings including schools, sports and music events, political meetings and community events.

As the country gears up for the next elections scheduled for 28th October 2020, president Magufuli has continued to maintain that Tanzania is free from COVID-19, despite concerns raised by experts. The silencing of critics, or anyone speaking out about the COVID-19 situation in the country, and tight control of public information has become a pattern during the pandemic period, as well as throughout Magufuli’s presidency.

In a separate but positive development since the last update, in mid-April the country changed its policy on barring pregnant girls from school, following pressure from human rights groups and development partners. Pregnant girls will now be permitted to resume formal education as prescribed by the Secondary Education Quality Improvement Project (Sequip) financed by the World Bank. Attention was drawn to the situation after opposition party member Zitto Kabwe received death threats for speaking out against the policy and criticising the granting of the World Bank education loan while girls were still being excluded from school, as documented on the Monitor.

Opposition members power-through as elections approach

On 28th July 2020, prominent opposition leader Tundu Lissu, who had been living in exile in Belgium since 2018, returned to Tanzania. Lissu is a member of the main opposition party Chadema and has been chosen as their presidential candidate for the October 2020 election. Shortly before his return, Lissu had spoken to The Africa Report, for their podcast Talking Africa, where he stated that “President Magufuli does not believe in the rule of law or democracy.” As previously reported on the Monitor, 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.

On 27th May 2020, leading opposition activist Mdude Nyagali had certain charges against him withdrawn in an ongoing case. The dropped charges concerned economic offences, but Nyagali is still facing drug trafficking charges after police searched his home and allegedly found heroin. He is a member of the main opposition Chadema party and a strong critic of President Magufuli. As previously documented, he was abducted in Mbeya in May 2019 and found four days later tortured and brutalised.

CSOs and HRDs stifled by overly stringent laws, raids and prosecution

In August 2020, civil society organisations (CSOs) raised concerns about their inability to carry out projects due to stifling regulations in the Non-Governmental Organisations Act (Amendments) Regulations 2018. The regulations require contracts and agreements exceeding Tsh20million (8,600 USD) to be submitted for approval to the treasury and the registrar of organisations not later than ten days after the contract date. The representatives of several key Tanzanian CSOs stated that the short time frames, and the delays in processes at the Registrar’s office, were effectively blocking their ability to carry out projects and would also tarnish their credibility.

On 24th June 2020, police officers raided a three-day safety and security training for HRDs, held by Tanzania Human Rights Defenders Coalition (THRDC) and also arrested two staff members. Confirming the arrest of THRDC’s staff, regional commander Mussa Taib said that the officers wanted to know what the training was about. According to THRDC’s coordinator, Onesmo Olenguruma, the police told them that only they (the police) were mandated to provide training on safety and security. 

Still in June 2020, the Written Laws Bill (Miscellaneous Amendments Act (No. 3) of 2020) passed through the Tanzanian National Assembly on 27th June 2020, nine days after it was made public, despite heavy criticism. The bill undermines public interest litigation by requiring those wishing to bring cases about enforcement of rights to show that the violation affects them personally. This takes away the ability of CSOs to initiate human rights cases on behalf of victims and communities, where the CSO has not been personally affected.

The bill also seeks to grant complete immunity to the President and other key leaders in the course of their duties.

Separately, human rights defenders also continue to face undue pressure from authorities because of their work. On 27th May 2020, the case against human rights defender Tito Magoti was postponed again until 9th June as the Magistrate presiding over the case was absent. The 27th May hearing was the twelfth planned hearing in Magoti’s case, in which he is charged with non-bailable economic crimes. Later, on 5th August, the case was postponed again for a fifteenth time. As previously reported, the charges are believed to be in retaliation for his human rights work. Multiple hearing postponements have been witnessed in cases against human rights defenders and journalists.

Targeting of LGBTIQ+ community not abating

Concern for LGBTIQ+ groups and persons in Tanzania was reiterated in April 2020 by James Wandera Ouma, the Executive Director of LGBT Voice, a community advocacy group. He mentioned the high numbers of members of the LGBTIQ+ community being arbitrarily arrested by authorities. Ouma stated to an online LGBTIQ+ magazine that he knew about more than 30 people who have been arrested in mainland Tanzania and 20 people in Zanzibar since Paul Makonda, the regional commissioner of Tanzania’s capital Dar es Salaam, announced that authorities would begin rounding up individuals suspected to be LGBTIQ. As previously reported on the Monitor, in 2018, Makonda announced plans to form a government task force to hunt down people believed to be from the LGBTIQ community, although the government distanced itself from those remarks, terming them “personal opinion”.

Unconstitutional law struck off

Separately, in positive developments, on 18th May 2020, the High Court of Tanzania, Dar es Salaam main registry, declared section 148(5) of the Criminal Procedure Act (2002) (non-bailable offences) unconstitutional. This section allows for a police officer receiving an accused person not to grant bail if the person is accused of certain crimes, including economic offences. This has been used to deny bail to journalists and human rights defenders. The Court gave the government 18 months to rectify the defect in the law.

Peaceful Assembly

On 23rd June 2020, opposition leader Zitto Kabwe and several members of his Alliance for Change and Transparency (ACT) Wazalendo party were arrested for “holding an unlawful assembly” after they held an internal meeting in Kilwa district. Kabwe had previously received death threats for questioning the World Bank loan to Tanzania, as reported by the Monitor. Kabwe and the other party members were released on bail the following day, on 24th June.

Expression

COVID-19: Journalists, critics face backlash for reporting and speaking out

Since the outbreak of COVID-19 in Tanzania, and the subsequent criticism of the government’s lack of response, multiple media outlets and journalists have faced backlash for reporting any information challenging the official narrative.

On 17th April 2020, the Tanzania Communication Regulatory Authority (TCRA) suspended the Mwananchi daily newspaper’s online content licence and issued a fine of 5 million Tanzanian shillings (2,250 USD) for alleged violation of the Electronic and Postal (Online content) Regulations of 2018. The suspension came after the outlet published a photograph of President Magufuli out shopping while surrounded by a crowd of people and breaching social distancing rules, which sparked online discussion on the country’s handling of COVID-19. Earlier that month, on 2nd April, other media organizations – Star Media Tanzania Ltd, Multichoice Tanzania Ltd, and Azam Digital Broadcast Ltd – were each fined and ordered to apologise for “transmission of false and misleading information” on the country’s approach to managing COVID-19. On 20th April, Tanzanian authorities suspended Talib Ussi Hamad, a journalist with the Daima daily newspaper, for six months for allegedly reporting on a COVID-19 patient without the patient’s consent.

Deprose Muchena, Amnesty International’s Director for East and Southern Africa said:

“Access to information is an essential part of the fight against COVID-19, yet the Tanzanian government is choosing to censor journalists and media outlets who report on the disease. These recent reprisals are clearly politically motivated - the Tanzanian government’s sensitivity to criticism is costing journalists their rights and livelihoods.”

Similarly, on 6th July 2020, the Contents Committee of the Tanzania Communications Regulatory Authority suspended Kwanza Online TV, a privately owned local broadcaster. In the letter sent by the Regulator, they cited a recent Instagram post by Kwanza TV that reposted a health alert from the US embassy in Tanzania warning of an “elevated” risk of COVID-19. The Regulator issued a statement officially suspending the broadcaster for 11 months and stating that the post was misleading and contravened professional standards.

CPJ’s sub-Saharan Africa representative, Muthoki Mumo said:

“Posting information about the coronavirus pandemic is now considered unpatriotic as President John Magufuli’s government continues its relentless assault on independent media in Tanzania… Tanzania should lift its ban on Kwanza Online TV immediately and ensure all media outlets can operate freely, as key steps in ending this war against the free press.”

A few days later, on 9th July 2020, Freeman Mbowe – Chairman of the Chadema opposition party, was attacked and hospitalised in what his party has called a politically motivated attack. Mbowe was attacked by armed men in Dodoma, who broke his leg and warned him against speaking out. Mbowe had recently accused President Magufuli of being in a “state of denial” about the scale of COVID-19 in the country.

In a similar vein, the head of the National Medical Laboratory, Nyambura Moremi, had earlier been suspended on 4th May 2020, a day after President Magufuli questioned the Laboratory’s COVID-19 published case figures, arguing that the outbreak was not as bad as reported. The removal of Moremi came amid mounting criticism of the President’s response to the pandemic.

The following day, on 5th May 2020, the Chairperson of the African Commission on Human and People’s Rights and several other special mechanisms of the commission wrote an urgent letter of appeal to the government of Tanzania regarding the right of people in the country to the protection of their health and lives and to access to public health information concerning the COVID-19 pandemic.

Journalists sentenced to imprisonment

On 11th May 2020, a Tanzanian journalist, Angellah Kiwia, and a driver, Mohamed Rushaka, with the weekly investigative newspaper Jamhuri were charged with four counts of economic crimes, including money laundering and kidnapping. These charges are not bailable under Tanzanian law. This followed the arrest and detention of several journalists and human rights defenders on “economic crimes”-related charges. The three appeared in court on 24th July where they were sentenced to two years in prison, or a fine of Tsh 800,000 (344 USD).

Stringent Cybercrime law used to prosecute president’s online critics

On 19th May 2020, popular Tanzanian comedian and former Big Brother Africa winner Idris Sultan was arrested by police for ‘bullying’ President John Magufuli. Police officially questioned the comedian for allegedly violating the country’s controversial Cybercrimes Act after he published a video laughing at an old photograph of the President. Sultan was released on bail on 27th May after being charged with failing to register a SIM card and later brought to court on 9th July amid concerns that the arrest was politically motivated. His trial was set to take place in August 2020.

Sultan was previously summoned by the police in November 2019, a day after he posted face-swap photos on his social media accounts and was held under the same law, as reported on the Monitor.

In a similar incident, on 6th August 2020, a Tanzanian man, Fadhili Silwimba, was sentenced to three years in jail, or a fine of Tsh 5 million (2,150 USD) for insulting President Magufuli on Facebook. The court stated that Siwimba was guilty of contravening cyber laws enacted in 2015 concerning cyberbullying.

Media outlet’s licence revoked

In late June 2020, Tanzania’s Information Services Department, which registers print media, announced that the license of leading media outlet Tanzania Daima would be revoked on grounds that the outlet breached “the law and professional ethics.” The agency neither specified which particular law was breached nor which content was in breach of the law. Anonymous sources close to CPJ however indicated that the revocation may have been in retaliation for a front-page article published by the outlet on 20th June which cited a local bishop calling on the public to protest and demand an independent electoral commission.

New regulations tighten state control over online content

On 10th August 2020, new online content regulations were signed into law concerning posting on social media. The regulations – the Electronic and Postal Communications (Online Content) Regulations 2020 - tighten state control over the internet and social media by criminalising the posting of “rumours” or messages that "ridicule, abuse or harm the reputation, prestige or status of the United Republic of Tanzania". In addition, the regulations also ban content on “the outbreak of deadly or contagious diseases in the country or elsewhere without the approval of the respective authorities,” which would include COVID-19. The regulations also serve to further restrict the media by banning local media outlets from broadcasting foreign content without government permission. It is expected that this will most affect local stations that air content from international media outlets such as BBC, RFI, and Deutsche Welle, amongst others.