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Tanzanian Reporter Fights for Free Press After Arrests, Threats

Maxence Melo of Tanzania did not set out to be a journalist.

In 2006, he launched a website called Jamii Forums to give young people a place to speak openly and to fight corruption.

But the effects of the website and the reaction of the Tanzanian government has been anything but simple. Melo has gone to court 137 times in the past three years, been arrested twice and spent 14 nights in jail.

“It’s the price we pay for these kinds of…freedoms,” he told VOA.

Last month, the Committee to Protect Journalists presented its International Press Freedom Award to Maxence Melo. He was among journalists from Brazil, India and Nicaragua who received the award.

Jamii Forums

Jamii Forums is mostly published in Swahili and has readers in Tanzania, Kenya and Uganda. It became famous in 2007 with a story about corruption in the Central Bank of Tanzania. Millions of dollars were missing from the bank.

Melo said that was the first time he and the website felt pressured by Tanzanian officials. They wanted to know who was operating the site.

In 2008, the website published stories that uncovered corruption involving deals with power companies. The stories led to the resignation of the prime minister and the dismissal of the cabinet. Since then, Melo said, government officials watch him very closely.

Melo said that government officials, members of parliament and opposition party members go to the website to communicate with its users. He said the anger he receives from those in power is not about misreporting the news; it is about reporting things officials do not like.

No fake news

“No one's (making charges of) any kind of false information,” Melo said. “We are being (attacked) for not cooperating…to reveal our sources of information."

The environment for Tanzanian media became even more dangerous in 2015 when the country enacted the Cyber Crimes Act. The law makes it a crime to repeat information that is false, misleading or inaccurate. It has been used to bring legal actions against news websites like Jamii Forums.

“It’s not only used against journalists…it’s used against critical voices. It’s used against almost everyone,” Melo said.

Additional laws have restricted journalists’ ability to see governmental information, he said.

Fighting for press freedom

Still, Melo has decided to continue being a journalist in his home country.

“Tanzania has been a good example in Africa,” he said. “We have been like ambassadors of change in Africa. And we have gone through this kind of challenging time for almost five years of lots of challenges to journalists — to critical voices in Tanzania.”

Maxence Melo has disputed parts of the Cyber Crimes Act in court without success, but says he is not giving up.

“We have room to challenge these laws. I know it comes at a huge price. As for me, I’ve tried my best,” he said.

This article was originally published on VoA.


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