The arrest on Tuesday of Maxence Melo, founder and editor of Jamii Forum, the popular Tanzanian website, has raised serious concerns among the human rights community in the region.
Mela was arrested and detained on 13 December. A day later the offices of the website were ransacked by police who subsequently arrested two more employees, and carried out a search of Melo’s house.
According to Melo’s lawyer, Benedict Ishabakaki, who is quoted by the independent newspaper The Citizen, the police detained his client for declining to disclose the identities of several online contributors who – according to the police – posted controversial content. The posts in questions related to the allegations of corruption in President John Magufuli’s government.
Melo remains detained without trial despite the fact that, according to Tanzanian law, anybody arrested must be charged within 24 hours.
“Ability to exercise the right to freedom of expression anonymously – that is without being identified – is a vital enabler of freedom of expression in relation to digital technologies. Hence, any lifting of anonymity in defamation cases should be subject to strong procedural safeguards. As a matter of principle, the disclosure of an individual’s online identity should only be ordered by the courts, which are best placed to properly balance the right to anonymous expression with other interests. The attempts of state security agencies to tacquire the identities of online users from Maxence Melo is a violation of Tanzania’s obligations under the Constitution and international human rights law,” said Henry Maina, Director of ARTICLE 19 Eastern Africa.
Since his election in October 2015, Tanzanian President John Magufuli has increased efforts to limit media freedom and access to information.
“Resorting to intimidation and harassment of the editor and website managers in an effort to avoid confronting allegations of corruption in government, is unacceptable. These disturbing developments are the latest in a series of events that illustrate how internet freedom and freedom of expression have become a battle front for Magufuli’s government.” continued Maina.
In January,Tanzania Minister for Information, Culture, Arts and Sports, Nape Nnauye, announced a permanent ban on Mawio newspaper, claiming the paper had carried news articles that had “all the ingredients of inciting violence”.
On 15 November 2016, President Magufuli assented to law the Media Service Act that requires journalists and social media users to acquire a license from the government-led Media Services Council.
According to media reports, at least 10 Tanzanians have been charged under various sections of the Cybercrime Act 2015 with “insulting” president Magufuli and publication of false news, for posts on social media platforms.
“We call upon the government to ensure the unconditional release of Maxence Melo and to respect and uphold media freedom and the right to freedom of expression information as recognised in the Tanzanian Constitution, as well as in regional and international law”, said Mania.
“Most importantly we encourage the Tanzanian government to initiate the process of reforming the Penal Code, the Cybercrimes Act and the Media Services Act as it promised during the recent Universal Periodic Review held at the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva less than three months ago.”
For more information and arranging media interviews, please contact Henry Maina, Director of ARTICLE 19 Eastern Africa at firstname.lastname@example.org or call on +254 +254 727 862230