Tanzania: ‘People can’t say what they want to say’

As part of our 2018 report on the theme of reimagining democracy, we are interviewing civil society activists and leaders about their work to promote democratic practices and principles, the challenges they encounter and the victories they score. CIVICUS speaks to two Tanzanian civil society workers, who have asked to remain anonymous, about recent restrictions imposed on the freedom of expression and ability to participate in democratic dissent by Tanzania’s President John Magafuli.

1. Can you tell us about recent events that have affected the freedom of expression in Tanzania?Tanzani

There is a crackdown. Laws recently passed - such as the new law on online content, which requires online platforms to apply for a licence and pay an annual fee - are hindering human rights. This new law has caused a popular blogging site, Jamil Forums, to close down. Exercising the freedom of expression has become very difficult. If you want to talk about anything related to the government, you risk getting into trouble.

An example of this is what has happened to Twaweza, a civil society organisation (CSO). The head of Twaweza, Aidan Eyakuze, is now not allowed to travel outside Tanzania. This came after Twaweza published a survey suggesting that President Magafuli’s popularity rating had fallen sharply. A government body then contacted Twaweza and accused it of conducting a survey without a permit. Because Twaweza discussed the president and his rule, now he has got angry, and the organisation has been attacked. The government has since said it will change the law to make it mandatory to get government approval before publishing surveys and polls.

Another recent example came after Akwilina Akwiline, a student, was killed. This happened during an attempt to hold a peaceful assembly by Chadema, an opposition party. Akwilina, who was not involved in the protest, was apparently killed by a stray police bullet. Following this, Abdul Nondo, a third-year student at the University of Dar Es Salaam, Chairperson of the Tanzania Students’ Networking Programme and a human rights defender, challenged the Minister of Home Affairs, Mwigulu Nchemba, over the killing. Abdul then informed his friends that he had received threatening phone calls from unknown people, telling him he must quit and if he did not do so, his life would be in danger. After a time he informed his friends that he had been captured by anonymous people and sent to the Iringa province in Tanzania’s Southern Highlands region. Following this, the police arrested Abdul and reprimanded him, accusing him of having ‘captured himself’, which caused controversy among many people in the country.

People are living in fear. We say we have freedom in our country, but people do not have free expression because they feel intimidated. People can’t say what they want to say. The space is closing and it affects people in their daily lives.

2. And what have the impacts been on civil society more generally?

Human rights organisations are trying their best but they also find themselves in trouble. The government machinery - the police, the courts - are being used to repress them. They are being intimidated, including by being banned. It is different for organisations working on issues like education and health. They are fine. But once you work on human rights, or if you are a political party, you are challenged.

The government has said it does not recognise the issues raised by human rights CSOs. For example, the president has said that if girls get pregnant while they are still at school, they should not go back to school again, as he has no schools for parents. Human rights CSOs have tried to advocate that pregnant girls and young mothers should be allowed to go to school as it is a human right for everyone to receive an education no matter what, but arguments based on human rights grounds have been rejected.

If civil society is going to be prohibited from publishing survey statistics freely, as is now being threatened, then much grassroots work in trying to understand the prevalence, drivers and possible solutions to problems is going to be not used or not done in the first place. This would be a real shame, especially as the potential to collect and use data for social good is becoming more and more accessible to grassroots organisations.

At the same time, some people do support the president, and citizens who support the president may challenge opposition parties. This means that CSOs that criticise the president and the ruling party may be branded as part of the opposition.

3. What do you think motivates these attacks?

This is happening because of the nature of Tanzania’s leadership. People in the ruling party fear that if they are criticised and people are aware of their failings, they can be removed from power. They want citizens and the community to be blind to what is taking place in the government.

This has worsened compared to previous times. Under former presidents, for example, opposition parties were much more able to make criticisms as part of the democratic process. There is less of this happening now, and people do so in a more muted way.

4. How can civil society respond, and what further support does it need to respond?

In response civil society has to invest more in education at the grassroots in raising awareness about human rights. Sometimes people do not know that their rights are being violated.

Civil society also needs tools that help it reach people at the grassroots. There need to be stronger links between CSOs and citizens at the grassroots. Human rights organisations need to do more work outside the capital city.

There also needs to be more support for civil society through international human rights networks.

Civil society needs to be supported with competent legal aid, and training to support its work on human rights, as well as help to resist being intimidated. Civil society needs to find more ways of approaching government machinery and knowledge about different ways to navigate the system.

Civic space in Tanzania is rated as ‘obstructed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor.