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Tanzania: Freedoms threatened ahead of elections

Tanzania authorities have stepped up repression of opposition parties, nongovernmental organizations, and the media ahead of the country’s general elections on October 28, 2020, Human Rights Watch said today.

Since mid-June, the government has arrested at least 17 opposition party members and critics of the government, suspended a rights group and canceled the license of another, and blocked other major rights groups from observing the upcoming elections. The authorities have also imposed new restrictions on the media, revoking the license of a newspaper affiliated with an opposition member and restricting some news outlets because of their reporting on Covid-19, which President John Magufuli says no longer exists in the country.

“It’s no coincidence that the Tanzanian government has increased its repression of the opposition, activists groups, and the media so close to the elections,” said Oryem Nyeko, Africa researcher at Human Rights Watch. “Instead of upholding the right to free expression at this critical time, authorities have instead adopted measures that raise concerns about the elections being free and fair.”

The government has arbitrarily arrested and briefly detained members of opposition political parties, notably the ACT-Wazalendo Party and Chadema, the main opposition party, on such grounds as “endangering the peace” or unlawful assembly. In July, the police arrested and held Issa Ponda, a Muslim leader, for nine days after he held a news conference calling for free and fair elections.

The government has also imposed new restrictions on the media and on freedom of expression online. It adopted regulations that ban Tanzanian broadcasters from working with foreign broadcasters without staff from the Tanzania Communications and Regulatory Authority or other government agency present. It also adopted regulations that criminalize a broad range of social media and online posts, including those that support organizing demonstrations or that “promote homosexuality.”

The authorities have also fined or suspended media outlets for covering politically sensitive topics, including the coronavirus. On July 6, the Communications Authority banned Kwanza TV, an online television station, for 11 months because of its Instagram post reporting on a Covid-19 health alert by the United States Embassy about Tanzania. The authority’s summons letter to Kwanza TV accused the station of being “unpatriotic.”

Two editors of independent newspapers, who did not wish to have their names used, said that officials had informally told them not to publish material that the government would not like. One of the editors said they had been “subtly warned” not to give prominent coverage to an opposition member Tundu Lissu and the former foreign minister Bernard Membe, who recently defected from the ruling party, Chama Cha Mapinduzi (CCM).

The authorities have also taken action against key nongovernmental organizations to limit their ability to monitor the elections. In July, the National Electoral Commission issued lists of the organizations approved to act as election observers and to conduct voter education, excluding major organizations that have historically coordinated election monitoring in the country.

The authorities have also stepped up their restrictions on organizations working to promote the rights and health of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) people ahead of the elections. Human Rights Watch has documented the government’s repression of LGBT people and activism, including arbitrary arrests and the use of forced anal exams, a discredited method of seeking evidence of homosexual conduct that is cruel and degrading and can amount to a form of torture, in the context of a wider political repression over the past five years.

Since President Magufuli took office in 2015, the government has cracked down on the media and civic space by passing and enforcing restrictive laws and threatening to cancel the registration of organizations critical of the government. The government has also placed restrictions on political opposition and given the registrar of political parties wide discretionary powers, including to cancel parties’ registration.

The authorities have also placed new limits on public interest litigation, which raises concerns about the right to redress for rights violations, Human Rights Watch said. On June 10, Parliament limited the ability of groups to legally challenge a law or policy that allegedly violates the constitution’s bill of rights. The move appears aimed to prevent groups from filing public interest cases on behalf of victims of government abuses.

“All of the actions that the government has taken in recent weeks affect conditions for a fair electoral playing field,” Nyeko said. “If Tanzania's elections are going to be free and fair, the government needs to allow rights groups and the media to work independently, and for political opposition and critics to express their views freely."

For details of restrictions the government has imposed, please see below.

Restrictions on Nongovernmental Organizations; Election Observation; Voter Education

In June, the National Electoral Commission published lists of 96 organizations approved as official elections observers and 245 to conduct voter education or coordinate organizations that provide voter education for the forthcoming elections. Organizations had applied between November 27, 2019 and January 30, 2020 for accreditation.

The lists excluded major human rights organizations that had properly applied, including Tanzania Human Rights Defenders Coalition, the Legal and Human Rights Centre, and the Tanzania Constitution Forum (Jukwaa la Katiba Tanzania). The Legal and Human Rights Centre coordinates the Tanzania Civil Society Consortium for Election Observation, a coalition of nongovernmental organizations which monitors elections in Tanzania.

The organizations believe they were excluded because they have a high capacity to objectively monitor the elections processes. After the lists were published, the organizations appealed to the Electoral Commission. They have yet to receive a response.


The authorities have suspended organizations for perceived political activities and for work protecting the rights of LGBT people.

On May 20, two men who identified themselves as officers with the registrar of nongovernmental organizations visited the offices of Inclusive Development for Citizens in Dar es Salaam, which promotes freedom of expression and government accountability through strategic litigation on human rights and online activism. They questioned a staff member about an anonymous letter from a nongovernmental organization urging the World Bank to halt a loan to Tanzania for a secondary education program that they said would further discrimination against pregnant schoolgirls.

The officials asked the staff member if the organization had collaborated with an opposition politician, Zitto Kabwe, who had written a separate letter to the World Bank opposing the loan, and questioned why the organization works with Maria Sarungi-Tsehai, the organization’s director, who is known for her online activism and outspoken criticism of the government, and about Fatma Karume, a lawyer and government critic.

On May 21, the office of the registrar sent a letter to Inclusive Development for Citizens, accusing it of participating in or associating itself with “political activities” contrary to section 29 of the Non-Governmental Organisations Amendment Act of 2019. The letter, seen by Human Rights Watch, gave the organization 30 days to demonstrate why legal action should not be taken against the group. On June 24, the registrar suspended the group’s registration indefinitely.

The registrar also wrote to several organizations on mainland Tanzania on June 24 requesting documentation for their funding sources, expenditures, and activities, or risk losing their registration.

On the same day, the registrar instructed the coalition of human rights organizations to submit its donor contracts and registration certificates. The police also raided a training session by the coalition for human rights defenders in Dar es Salaam that day and arrested two staff, releasing them a few hours later. Police said the organization was not authorized to conduct the training, and the regional police commander, Mussa Taibu, told the media that police detained the staff because they “wanted to know what the exact theme of the meeting was.”

On August 17, police summoned Onesmo Olengurumwa, head of the coalition, and questioned him about failing to submit its donor contracts, in line with regulations. The coalition says it did in fact provide the contracts. Olengurumwa was released later that day on a 200 million Tanzania shilling (US$86,000) police bond. The next day, the organization suspended its activities after authorities froze its bank accounts, pending the conclusion of the investigation.

Separately, the authorities have intensified their crackdown on groups that advocate for the health and rights of LGBT people. On June 16, in Zanzibar, the registrar summoned Hamid Muhammad Ali, director of the AIDS Initiative Youth Empowerment and Development, an LGBT rights group, to a meeting in which officials questioned him and informed him that his organization’s registration was being suspended for “promoting homosexuality.” The meeting was later broadcast on television.

Ali told Human Rights Watch that four days later, police visited and searched his home and directed him to undergo an anal examination at Mnazi Mmoja Hospital the following day. He said he went to the hospital and was asked to provide his fingerprints and a copy of his national ID card but was not forced to undergo the examination. On August 10, the minister for regional administration, local government, and special departments cancelled the group’s nongovernmental organization license for going against the “religious and social values” of Zanzibar.

Ali and other LGBT rights activists in Zanzibar said that they believed officials carried out these actions to gain political favor ahead of the elections.

Arrests, Detention of Government Critics

The authorities have arbitrarily arrested outspoken critics of the government and of the elections process. On June 23, police arrested Kabwe and seven other opposition members during an internal meeting of their opposition party, ACT Wazalendo, in Kilwa, in the southern region of Lindi. The next day, the police released them. The party said that Kabwe and the others were charged with “endangering the peace,” but no details about the offense were provided. Kabwe and the others have been required to report to the police every three weeks.

Kabwe had previously been arrested several times for criticizing the government, including in 2017, for contradicting government statistics, and in 2018, for alleging that several people were killed during clashes between pastoralists and the police. On May 26, the Kisutu Resident Magistrate’s Court found Kabwe guilty of sedition for his 2018 remarks and ordered him not to write or say anything seditious.

On July 11, the police arrested Sheikh Issa Ponda, secretary of the Council of Imams, in Tanzania, at his office in Bungoni, Dar es Salaam. The media reported that the reason was for “allegedly circulating a document containing elements of incitement and breach of peace towards the 2020 general election.” The Council of Imams on July 9 had issued a document, seen by Human Rights Watch, calling for the government to ensure independent and fair elections, legislative reform, and equality for Muslims. Police detained Ponda for nine days, then released him on bail.

The police arrested eight members of Chadema, Tanzania’s main opposition party, including its youth wing chairperson, Nusrat Hanje, in the Singida region, west of Dodoma, on July 6. The police accused them of insulting the national flag by singing the Tanzanian national anthem while raising a Chadema flag during a party meeting on July 4. Prosecutors also accused the group of unlawful assembly and “attempting to communicate classified information.” The group remains in jail in Dodoma since a magistrates’ court denied them bail. On August 26, the High Court ordered that their bail be processed, but they remain in jail.

The media reported that on the night of June 8, unidentified assailants attacked and beat Freeman Mbowe, Chadema’s chairman, as he returned in the national capital, Dodoma, breaking his leg. Mbowe, a prominent critic of the government, has been arrested numerous times. In March, a court convicted Mbowe and nine other party leaders for making seditious statements during a public rally in February 2018, and imposed fines of up to 350 million Tanzanian shillings ($151,000).

Media Suspensions and Restrictions

The authorities have suspended licenses of media companies and summoned media professionals over coverage deemed controversial, including reporting on Covid-19.

On July 20, President Magufuli said there was no coronavirus in Tanzania. The government has not provided updated statistics on Covid-19 infection rates in the country since April, and has not imposed travel restrictions, curfew, or other measures to curb the spread of the disease.

On July 23, the director of the Information Department in the Ministry of Information, Culture, Arts and Sports, Patrick Kipangula, revoked Tanzania Daima newspaper’s license over “excessive and repetitive nature of violations of the laws and the ethics of journalism.”

Newspaper staff told Human Rights Watch they felt that the government deliberately took the action ahead of the elections because the newspaper regularly covers the activities of opposition parties, and because its owner is married to Mbowe, the Chadema chair.

On April 20, Zanzibar authorities suspended the license of Talib Ussi Hamad, a journalist with Tanzania Daima, because of a Facebook post in which he said that another journalist had the coronavirus.

On April 2, the Tanzania Communications and Regulatory Authority fined Star Media Tanzania Limited, Multichoice Tanzania Limited, and Azam Digital Broadcast Limited 5 million Tanzania shillings ($2,155) each for disseminating “false and misleading information about Tanzania’s stance on Covid-19” after television stations they owned broadcasted news about Covid-19.

On April 16, the Communications Authority suspended the license of the online version of the Kiswahili-language newspaper Mwananchi for six months after it posted a video of President Magufuli buying fish at a market, apparently not complying with social distancing and Covid-19 restrictions. The agency accused Mwananchi of publishing “false information,” contrary to the Online Content regulations. Mwananchi later apologized for posting the video, saying it was old.

In June, the government amended the Electronic and Postal Communications (Radio and Television) regulations, banning Tanzanian radio and television broadcasters from working with foreign broadcasters without communications authority or other government staff present, suggesting that foreign broadcasters may not be able cover events in Tanzania without government permission.

Online Content Regulations

Since July, the government has passed new restrictions on online communications, effectively banning content critical of the government.

In July, the government passed amendments to the Electronic and Postal Communications (Online Content) Regulations that provide criminal penalties for publishing online “content against the State and public order,” or calling for demonstrations, or that “promotes or favors what would raise sedition, hatred or racism.”

The regulations also prohibit promoting homosexuality, which could be used to prosecute people for conducting LGBT rights advocacy, or for publishing "information with regards to the outbreak of a deadly or contagious diseases" without government approval. Violators may be fined or sentenced to a minimum of one year in prison.

Online communication in Tanzania is already severely restricted by the Cybercrimes Act of 2015. The government has used this law to prosecute individuals for online posts and internet-based publications. In March 2018, the government adopted the Online Content regulations, which gave the Communications Authority wide discretionary powers to license internet-based content, including blogs, requiring them to pay fees of up to $900, which has prevented many from obtaining the licenses. Non-compliance is a criminal offense.

This article was published by Human Rights Watch.


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