JOHANNESBURG – During a recent phone call with a Tanzanian journalist and human rights activist whom I know well, many of my questions were met with uncharacteristic silence.
My friend is bold, plucky, and usually talkative. But on this occasion, politics was too dangerous for her to discuss. With Tanzania’s journalists being threatened, assaulted, and kidnapped, our conversation remained confined to the mundane.
Tanzania, one of Africa’s most stable democracies is sliding toward authoritarianism. For months, President John Magufuli has been targeting his political opponents, attacking journalists, and closing news outlets. While his moves have drawn international criticism, Magufuli continues his assault on free speech and political rights. Tanzanians are being silenced like never before, and the world should be very worried.
Until recently, Tanzanians believed their country was headed in the opposite direction. After taking office in late 2015, Magufuli introduced a reform-oriented agenda that earned him high praise.
Among his initiatives was a campaign to redirect public spending to fight cholera, and a payroll audit to identify “ghost workers” – non-existent government employees who drain some $2 million from the budget every month. The private sector was not spared with mining companies being accused of under paying their taxes. In fact, Magufuli’s anti-corruption efforts were so popular that many Tanzanians viewed their president as the epitome of morality; on social media, the hashtag #WhatWouldMagufuliDo went viral.
But today, that hashtag has become a parody. In banning protests, closing media organizations, and cracking down on his critics, Magufuli has shown Tanzanians, who have never had a strongman leader, that he intends to follow in the footsteps of the many the region has known.
Magufuli’s assault on press freedom has been particularly troubling. In June 2017, authorities ordered the popular Swahili language newspaper Mawio to cease publication for two years, after it ran a story about tax evasion by local mining companies. The article named former Tanzanian presidents Benjamin Mkapa and Jakaya Kikwete, which the government claimed was a violation of the Media Services Act of 2016.
Then, in January, five prominent television stations were fined for airing a statement by the Legal and Human Rights Center regarding possible rights violations during local elections last year.
Having muzzled traditional news organizations, the state then set its sights on online media. In March, the Tanzania Communications Regulatory Authority began requiring bloggers and digital publishers to register with the government and pay a $920 license fee.
The Electronic and Postal Communications (Online Content) Regulations also require Internet cafes to install surveillance cameras, and bloggers to report on-site visitors and other operational details. Anyone who posts content that is deemed to “cause annoyance, threatens harm or evil, encourages or incites crimes,” or jeopardizes “national security or public health and safety” can have their costly license revoked.
Tanzania’s High Court has issued a temporary injunction blocking the new regulations; nonetheless, the government is still getting its way. For example, after the influential online whistleblower site Jamii Forums stopped publishing in mid-June because it was in violation of the rules, other bloggers voluntarily followed suit.
Media outlets are not the only victims of Magufuli’s crackdown; civil-society organizations are also being targeted. For example, in late 2017, the government began what it called an NGO “verification” exercise, ostensibly to update the federal database of non-governmental organizations, but more likely aimed at curtailing the number of groups operating beyond government control. Registration was so costly and time-consuming that many organizations were forced to choose between closing and operating illegally.
African governments have joined dozens of civil-society groups in calling for Magufuli to reverse course. But at the moment, an atmosphere of impunity is emboldening those intent on silencing human rights defenders, journalists, and opposition leaders. In April, efforts to organize anti-government protests were met with official threats and intimidation. One police official even warned that anyone who ignored the government’s ban on demonstrating would be “beaten like stray dogs.”
Such threats come amid a surge in political violence. In September 2017, for example, Tundu Lissu, an outspoken government critic, was shot during a failed assassination attempt.
Two months later, Azory Gwanda, a freelance journalist who wrote several news stories about the murders of local officials and police officers, was abducted and is still missing. And in February, machete-wielding assailants murdered opposition politician Godfrey Luena outside his home.
Why are Magufuli and his supporters so intent on stifling dissent? Some analysts believe the president is attempting to cement power for the ruling Chama Cha Mapinduzi party. Others argue that Magufuli’s anti-corruption drive pushed CCM elites into the arms of the opposition, and that his political survival depends on removing the threat they now pose.
Whatever the reason, there is no excuse for government-sanctioned attacks on freedom of expression, association, and assembly. Two years ago, Magufuli – who is known as “The Bulldozer” – came to office vowing to end graft and curb wasteful government spending. As noble as these goals are, they will be overshadowed if he continues his campaign against those who entrusted him with their hopes.
Teldah Mawarire is an advocacy and campaigns officer with CIVICUS, a global civil society all