Panafrican News Agency

Tanzanian action against free speech, pre-election crackdown attracts criticism

Nairobi, Kenya (PANA) – Democratic space in Tanzania continues to narrow as the government applies laws to stifle freedom of expression, a human rights organisation has warned.

While defenders of human rights continue to face reprisal attacks and are regularly dragged to court for minor offences, Amnesty International said in a report on Monday that measures are required to restore credibility of elections and respect for human rights.

President John Magufuli, the country’s fifth president, elected into office in October 2015, is due to face an election on 28 October 2020, when Tanzanians go to the polls in general elections.

Under President Magufuli’s administration, the state has used a raft of repressive laws to restrict the rights to freedom of expression, peaceful assembly and association – online and offline, Amnesty International said in the report.

The report shows how, from January to September 2020 the government ramped up this repression against political opposition parties, critical media outlets, non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and human rights defenders and activists.

“Space is really narrowing in Tanzania but we should be specific about who is the subject of the narrowing of democratic and civil rights space. The Catholic Church in Tanzania is still enjoying adequate freedom. However, the space for the judiciary and the civil society and media is narrowing," said Willy Mutunga, Kenya’s former Chief Justice during a panel debate on the report.

Amnesty International said the repression has had a chilling effect on debate and the campaigns.

“It will constrain civic engagement and prevent scrutiny of the authorities’ human rights record, including in the context of the elections,” the rights body said.

Deprose Muchena, Amnesty International’s Regional Chief for Eastern and Southern Africa, said it was the right and responsibility of human rights organisations to speak out against what it acalled a “toxic" political environment.

Following on from Amnesty International’s October 2019 report, The Price We Pay – Targeted for Dissent by the Tanzanian State, the new report showed how the human rights situation has deteriorated over the last five years.

Frequent changes to laws and the regulations that give effect to them, make it hard to keep up with Tanzania’s ever shifting legal landscape.

Cumulatively, such changes have significantly eroded the rule of law and undermined respect for human rights, as incumbent President Magufuli runs for his second and final constitutional term of office, it noted. Before the start of the election campaign period, opposition politicians faced arbitrary arrest and detention, as police applied public assembly laws in a selective and partisan way.

Opposition activities continue to be severely restricted, while politicians from the ruling Chama cha Mapinduzi (CCM) party and public officials disregard the same law and operate freely.

Tundu Lissu, a leading opposition leader, was able to return from exile in July 2020 to stand as presidential candidate for the Chadema opposition party.

However, his campaigns were recently halted for days. He had previously fled the country in 2017 after an attempted assassination. However, opposition politicians continue to report physical attacks and the police’s failure to promptly, thoroughly, transparently and effectively investigate these means that Tanzania’s elections take place amidst an escalating crackdown on human rights and repression of opposition leaders and candidates, who continue to fear for their safety and security.

In the lead-up to the elections, NGOs perceived to be critical of the government, have been threatened with suspension, suspended or denied clearance to conduct election-related activities.

NGOs face the dilemma of disclosing extensive details about their activities and funding, potentially compromising human rights work and staff security, or risking deregistration.

Amnesty said the regulations on NGOs have forced some to scale back work and are self-censoring. This will reduce scrutiny of the authorities’ human rights record, including ahead of the elections.

Tanzania’s government has also cracked down on media freedom, including in the context of the authorities’ response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

They have suspended media outlets, limiting the public’s right to information, and exerting a chilling effect on the right to freedom of expression and media freedom.

In a further attempt to restrict human rights in the context of the elections, foreign journalists must now be accompanied by a government minder when carrying out their official duties and political parties have been warned that meeting foreign diplomats may violate laws governing political parties, according to Amnesty.

Reducing avenues for civic organizing, access to information, and the right to freedom of peaceful assembly before, during and after the elections, revised internet regulations now criminalize planning or supporting protests “which may lead to public disorder”.

These sweeping and overly broad provisions hold internet users responsible for the conduct of protests, even if they do not directly participate, which would dissuade people from online activism.

The report is based on 29 telephone interviews including with affected persons and their families, lawyers, politicians, journalists, and representatives of NGOs conducted remotely between 20 April and 28 September, 2020, and reviews of videos, photographs, official statements, court documents and media reports.

Ahead of the forthcoming elections, Amnesty International calls on the authorities to respect, protect, promote and fulfil the human rights of everyone including the rights to freedom of expression, association, peaceful assembly and movement.

The authorities must end arbitrary arrests of opposition politicians, allow media outlets and NGOs to operate freely, and permit independent observers to monitor and speak out about human rights issues.

-0- PANA AO/VAO 12Oct2020