DAR ES SALAAM, Tanzania — “The government is clamping down on freedom left, right and center,” said Shruti Suresh from the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA), as we started talking about the decline in elephant populations and wound up talking about politics. The two are closely related in a country where travel and tourism contribute about 13 percent of GDP, and the big attraction that draws people in is African wildlife.
Suresh’s agency released a scathing report last month revealing Tanzania had lost 60 percent of its elephant population in just five years—a serious embarrassment for the ruling Chama Cha Mapinduzi (CCM) party as general elections for president and parliament approached this Sunday.
But taking stock of the sad reality for wildlife, as Suresh knows only too well, also risks legal sanctions. Over the last year, a set of draconian laws have been put in place to make sure the government is never embarrassed—or, in fact, challenged—again. And the consequences for free speech and freedom of the press in Tanzania are alarming.
As Tanzanians head to the polls to elect a new president it’s going to be close contest: For the first time in the country’s history, the powerful CCM or Party of the Revolution is facing the prospect of defeat thanks to a charismatic, popular opposition candidate called Edward Lowassa, who has rallied huge support. And the country is on edge.
I spent two weeks traveling around Tanzania, and politics was everywhere. When I hung out in a bar in the northern city of Arusha, people crowded around a TV showing Lowassa speaking in front of thousands of supporters. At every hotel I stayed at, I watched the staff huddle together in heated political discussions after other guests had gone to bed. When I walked through the market in Zanzibar, groups of men huddled around newspaper stands, gazing intently at the latest headlines, while on posters above them political candidates seemed to be eyeing the scene.
All this buzz has the CCM worried—and it’s doing its best to quell the discussion. Human-rights activists worry that the new laws can seriously curtail free speech and muzzle journalists, activists and ordinary citizens alike.
Under the Statistics Act, passed in March, anyone, including the media, who publishes statistics related to the Tanzanian government without approval from the National Bureau of Statistics (NBS) could face heavy fines or even jail. That’s the immediate problem Suresh and his organization are up against.
The government has denied that the bill will have any effect on free speech or wildlife conservation. When I asked Adelhelm Meru, permanent secretary for the Ministry of Natural Resources and Tourism, about the new law, he insisted that “it doesn’t touch us.”
Still, there’s a tense atmosphere among wildlife activists in the country. Several conservationists that I spoke with said the situation is “very delicate,” and asked not to be quoted in relation to any numbers that hadn’t already been released by the ministry.
More worrying still for freedom of speech is the Cybercrimes Act, also passed in Parliament in March. The Orwellian legislation sets strict guidelines for online activity, making it a criminal offence to publish any information the government deems “deceptive, misleading or inaccurate.”
It’s a bill that Maxence Melo understands all too well. Melo is the co-founder of JamiiForums, a news and social networking site—something like a Tanzanian Reddit with more emphasis on news and current events. Since its founding in 2006, it’s become the country’s main whistleblowing platform. And it’s getting Melo in big trouble.
Now that the election is approaching, it seems the government has had enough of scandals. Melo has been interrogated 17 times. Twice he’s been arrested. And in 2013, he says he was involved in a car crash after a mysterious dark vehicle chased him off the road. Following the 2010 election, when CCM claimed a much narrower victory than in previous years, the party’s Vice-Chairman Pius Msekwa reportedly stated that JamiiForums “works to undermine CCM and the government.”
To Melo, the Cybercrimes Act felt almost inevitable. He says a source inside the government told him “They’ve been trying to get rid of you and it’s not working. They want to kill your business.”
Even before the law was fully implemented, there were signs that the government was cracking down on dissidence:
In July, Bruno Colman Kimaryo, 33, was arrested for “distribution of a seditious publication” after he lauded an attack on a police station in Dar es Salaam on his own Facebook page.
Since the law took full effect on Sept. 1, Melo says, traffic has gone down on Jamii. He says people have left certain Whatsapp groups and Facebook groups as well. “They are trying to silence the people and it’s working.”
Over the last month, arrests have started:
On Oct. 9, Benedict Angelo Ngonyani, 24, was arrested for a Facebook post which claimed that Tanzania's Chief of Defence Forces, General Davis Mwamunyange, was in a hospital with food poisoning. Less than a week later, Sospiter Jonas was charged with “misuse of the Internet” after a Facebook post in which he wrote that Tanzanian Prime Minister Mizengo Pinda “will only become a gospel preacher.”
Journalists, too, are being targeted. In February, The EastAfrican newspaper was banned after 20 years of operation in Tanzania. According to the government, the paper had violated the country’s newspaper registration laws. However, the more likely explanation is the paper’s outspoken criticism of President Jakaya Kikwete. It’s part of a worrying trend.
According to Freedom House, Tanzania has 17 laws which “encourage self-censorship and limit the ability of the media to function effectively.” And now there’s one more. In June, the government passed a subsidiary legislation to the Broadcasting Services Code, specifically in relation to reporting on the upcoming elections. Ostensibly, the legislation is intended to encourage impartiality from journalists, but littered throughout the 20-page document are regulations that could seriously compromise journalistic freedom.
Television broadcasters, for example, are mandated to report only on things that the government deems “interesting and relevant” and prohibited from broadcasting any “inflammatory, defamatory and divisive matter.” Print journalists are cautioned to make sure their reporting is “accurate” and “balanced” and warned not to “hurt the feelings of any person.” Under the code, journalists are also prohibited from using any language that might “breach peace.”
When it comes to opinion polls and election results, the legislation is equally restrictive. Opinion polls are to be treated with “caution,” and cannot be broadcast “within 30 days before polling day.” On polling day, news stations are prohibited from broadcasting “discussion and analysis of referendum and election issues” as well as the “results of the voting in any constituency.”
I spoke to John Foley, from Amnesty International, who just spent two weeks in Tanzania investigating what he calls a “wide range of human rights concerns.” These new pieces of legislation, he says, have created “a great deal of uncertainty among journalists, academics and civil society alike.” The very existence of these bills demonstrates that, backed into a corner, the ruling party will do anything to hold onto the balance of power, even if it means silencing the voices of its citizens.
Even more concerning is the consequences of these laws for Tanzania’s future. As Keith Weghorst, a political scientist from Vanderbilt University, told me, “The real teeth of these bills might be in the aftermath of the election.” Regardless of who wins the election on Sunday, it’s freedom in Tanzania that will likely take a hit.
Maxence Melo, from Jamii Forums, says that with the election’s approach, traffic has gone up again on the website. There has been one subtle change, however. Since the Cybercrimes Act, people have been referring to their political views and dissenting opinions as “dreams” in case any conversations are being monitored. When I asked him why, Melo replied simply, “You cannot be arrested for dreaming.”