Three years ago, the Tanzanian human rights activist Vicky Ntetema and I sat down at a quiet Dar es Salaam restaurant to talk about the human rights situation in her country. I ordered a meal, but she didn’t. She said she didn’t eat at restaurants anymore because she feared she might be poisoned. Things had gotten that bad in the years since then-President John Magufuli came to power.
Ntetema’s fears went beyond poisoning. In August 2017, the non-governmental organization registration board threatened to withdraw registration from her group after it submitted a report on human rights for children with albinism in Tanzania to the African Committee of Experts on the Rights and Welfare of the Child.
State officials later visited her office, intimidating her staff and demanding to know her whereabouts. In the midst of this, the authorities questioned her nationality and threatened that they would deport her – a common government tactic to harass activists. To protect herself and her family, she decided to be less public with her human rights work.
Magufuli’s harsh crackdown on critics seriously affected Ntetema and other Tanzanian activists. After he was first elected in 2015, Tanzania’s human rights record deteriorated dramatically, particularly for freedom of expression and association. Observers initially lauded Magufuli for his aggressive campaign against corruption and for prioritizing economic and infrastructure development. But this soon gave way to concerns about his intense repression of the media, political opposition, and civil society.
It is this legacy of repression and intolerance of criticism that the new president, Samia Suluhu Hassan, needs to redress.
At the beginning of Magufuli’s presidency, the government adopted and enforced a series of laws to stifle criticism. The 2015 Cybercrimes Act, which criminalizes offenses related to computer systems and electronic devices, was used to censor opposition politicians, journalists, and activists, through prosecutions for their online posts criticizing the government. The 2015 Statistics Act, which was later amended after pressure from the World Bank , made it a crime to publish statistics not approved by the government.
In 2017, Bob Chacha Wangwe , an activist and then law student, was convicted and fined five million shillings (US$2,185) for publishing false information in a Facebook post about Tanzania’s relationship with Zanzibar.
The authorities used the Media Services Act to censor and suspend newspapers and radio stations for publishing or airing material critical of Magufuli’s presidency. Last year, after he said that Covid-19 no longer existed in the country, the government fined and suspended licenses of media companies , and summoned media professionals over their coverage of the pandemic.
The repression heightened in the lead-up to the December 2020 elections, which Magufuli won by a landslide. The police arbitrarily arrested and detained journalists, activists, and scores of opposition party leaders and supporters. The authorities suspended television and radio stations, censored mobile phone communication, and blocked social media. We documented killings by Zanzibar security forces of at least three people , with scores more injured, on the night before election day.
The authorities cracked down on individuals and organizations deemed critical of Magufuli’s hostile statements about rights issues, notably his outright ban on pregnant students and teenage mothers attending public school, and dissuading the use of family planning services . The authorities subjected lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people to waves of arbitrary arrests and violations of their right to health and freedom of association .
The impact of this repression has been far-reaching, effectively silencing civil society organizations and activists, like Ntetema, who were critical of the government.
President Hassan has taken some progressive steps. She called for lifting the ban on media outlets, formed a committee of experts to evaluate the Covid-19 pandemic response, and pardoned over 5,000 prisoners to reduce prison overcrowding, which civil society organizations had pressed Magufuli to do last year.
But President Hassan needs to go further. She should ensure the review or repeal of repressive laws like the Media Services Act, the Cybercrimes Act, and the Electronic and Postal (Online Content) Regulations, that among other things, makes operating a blog without a prohibitively expensive license a crime.
She should also issue clear directives to police and all other government officials not to intimidate, threaten, arbitrarily arrest, beat or wrongfully prosecute journalists, activists, and opposition politicians. The Home Affairs Ministry should stop harassing activists under the pretext of investigating their citizenship. Tanzania’s economic crimes legislation should not be used to stifle critics of the government.
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President Hassan should send a strong message about respect for media freedom and the rights of journalists by ensuring a thorough investigation into the abduction of freelance journalist Azory Gwanda . He has been missing since November 2017 when unidentified people picked him up from his home in Kibiti, in southern Tanzania.
The new administration needs to reverse Tanzania’s dramatic slide into autocracy in recent years and demonstrate a genuine commitment to fulfilling its human rights obligations under the national constitution and the regional and international treaties that Tanzania has ratified. President Hassan should begin to build her legacy as a leader who will forge a future that promotes the rights and freedoms of all Tanzanians.
Oryem Nyeko is a Tanzania researcher at Human Rights Watch.