Tanzania: Laws weaponized to undermine freedoms ahead of elections

The authorities must stop harassing opposition politicians over ridiculous pretexts

Muchena: “President Magufuli must urgently reverse the decline in political and civil freedoms in Tanzania and ensure human rights defenders, activists and civil society organizations can carry out their work freely and independently without any fear of reprisals.”
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Tanzanian President John Magufuli’s government has built up a formidable arsenal of laws to stifle all forms of dissent and effectively clamp down on the rights to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly ahead of elections on 28 October, Amnesty International said as they launched the report Lawfare – Repression by Law Ahead of Tanzania’s General Elections today.

In recent months, opposition candidates have been arrested on spurious charges that strip them of their right to freedom of assembly, association and movement. At the same time rules aimed at tightening the government’s control over what local and foreign media publish have come into force, violating the right to freedom of expression.

“Tanzania has weaponized the law to the point that no one really knows when they are on the right or wrong side of it. Politicians have been arrested for holding or attending meetings, media houses suspended and banned, online activism criminalized, and NGOs stifled with endless regulations,” said Deprose Muchena, Amnesty International’s Director for East and Southern Africa.

These laws and regulations, passed in rapid succession with minimal public participation, affect everyone: opposition politicians, government critics, civil society, journalists, artists, musicians, and diplomats.

“The use of the law to systemically and deliberately clamp down on people’s inalienable human rights, especially in an election season, is an extremely worrying and unhealthy sign for a country positioning itself for greater growth and development,” said Deprose Muchena.

Opposition clampdown

Joseph Mbilinyi, a candidate with the main opposition party Chama cha Demokrasia na Maendeleo (Chadema) party was arrested and released on 14 August, accused of organizing an “unauthorized demonstration” because he was accompanied by supporters as he collected his nomination papers from the National Elections Commission (NEC) offices in Mbeya.

Seven members of Chadema’s youth wing were on 7 July arrested for “ridiculing the national anthem and flag” among other charges, because they sang the national anthem while hoisting the party flag. They have not been released.

The leader of the opposition Alliance for Change and Transparency (ACT – Mzalendo), Zitto Kabwe, was arrested on 23 June with seven party officials, for holding an “illegal assembly” because they attended an internal party meeting. And on 12 June, he was summoned to explain his meeting with British High Commissioner Sarah Cooke allegedly in contravention of Section 6(C)4 of The Political Parties (Amendment) Act 2019, which states that “a non-citizen shall not participate in the decision making process of a political party with the aim of promoting the objectives of that party.”

“The authorities must stop harassing opposition politicians over ridiculous pretexts and instead respect, uphold and facilitate the fulfilment of the rights to liberty, freedom of expression, peaceful assembly and association, to enable them to freely run their campaigns,” said Deprose Muchena.

Media targeted

New rules introduced in August require foreign journalists to be chaperoned on assignments by a government official. Tanzanian broadcasters must also seek permission to air content produced by foreign media following an amendment of the Radio and TV Broadcasting regulations on 11 August 2020. The amendment was precipitated by the broadcast of a BBC interview with opposition politician Tundu Lissu by Radio Free Africa, a Tanzanian broadcaster.

Amnesty International has documented the banning of the Tanzania Daima newspaper associated with Chadema’s Freeman Mbowe on 23 June, and the suspension of other media houses, some under the pretext of spreading false information on COVID-19. Kwanza TV, associated with Maria Sarungi-Tsehai, a fierce critic of President Magufuli, was suspended on 6 July for 11 months for publishing a health alert on Tanzania from the US government.

Civil society stifled

Amnesty International documented at least four new laws passed since 2019 restricting NGOs operations. From June 2019, NGOs were required to disclose the source of their funding, and from April 2020 additional guidelines were passed to give government more control over NGOs impeding freedom of association. Supervision of certain NGO functions that had previously been under the Ministry of Health, Community Development, Gender, Elderly and Children is now under the President’s Office, an indication of growing executive influence over NGO operations.

“NGOs are now struggling between disclosing extensive information about their work, which undermines the independence required for legitimate human rights work and puts the security of their staff at risk or face being deregistered,” said Deprose Muchena.

In June, human rights NGOs were banned from undertaking election-related activities while international observers were ordered not to speak about the elections. The Elections Commission on 23 June barred key civil society organizations such as the Tanzania Constitution Forum (TCF), the Legal and Human Rights Centre (LHRC), the Tanzania Human Rights Defenders Coalition (THRDC) and the Tanzania Episcopal Conference (TEC) from conducting voter education. Two of these – THRDC and LHRC cannot train lawyers to handle election petitions as they have previously done.

“President Magufuli must urgently reverse the decline in political and civil freedoms in Tanzania and ensure human rights defenders, activists and civil society organizations can carry out their work freely and independently without any fear of reprisals,” said Deprose Muchena.

“He must also ensure that his administration respects, protects and promotes human rights before, during and after the elections. Furthermore, he must ensure the prompt, thorough, transparent and effective investigation of any allegations of violations and bring suspected perpetrators to justice.”

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