Country FilesEast & HornTanzania whistleblower speaks out

Fri,24Nov2017

Posted on Thursday, 22 December 2016 11:50

Tanzania whistleblower speaks out

By Willy Lowry in Dar es Salaam

Tanzania President John Magafuli -- AP Photo/Khalfan SaidJamiiForums founder Maxence Melo speaks out after arrest, as police target whistleblowing site in Tanzania

 

On December 13th, Tanzanian police arrested Maxence Melo, the founder of JamiiForums, a popular website in Tanzania where users post and discuss important political news. After holding him for 24 hours, officers searched Jamii Media’s offices and Melo’s house in Mbezi Beach, a suburb of Dar es Salaam.

The police claimed they were acting on complaints filed against Melo, however, did not disclose the nature of the complaints. Officers interrogated Melo’s employees and asked them for private information on the site’s users.

Melo and the employees refused to hand over any information, including the names of whistleblowers who had recently disclosed information through the website.

“[The reason] there are still whistleblowers on Jamiiforums is because they believe we can protect them,” said Melo. And he’s determined to keep it that way.

It is the latest crackdown on free speech by the administration of President Magafuli. In July, the editor of daily newspaper Mwananchi was hauled in front of the security services. Previously, two people were arrested for comments made on social media.

Melo sat in jail for three days before being charged with three counts of obstruction, as well as for operating a website without the Tanzanian “dot-tz” domain name. Under Tanzanian law suspects are supposed to be charged within 24 hours.

#FreeMaxenceMelo

His arrest sparked an uprising on social media with the hashtag #FreeMaxenceMelo trending on Twitter across East Africa.

According to Neville Meena the secretary of the Tanzania Editors Forum Melo’s arrest is another troubling sign for press freedom. “The government is using different means to suppress the media in Tanzania,” said Meena.

This is not the first time Melo has spent time in jail. The 40 year-old has been interrogated by police 19 times since JamiiForums launched in 2006.

“All these times, all the police wanted to know is who’s behind JamiiForums,” said Melo. “Who is paying you, who is posting whatever information they are posting on JamiiForums and why don’t you release their data.”

The website is the most influential source of political news in the country. According to Melo it gets 600,000 visitors a day and has more than 4 million followers across its various social media platforms.

In 2008, documents released on its discussion board helped reveal a corrupt energy deal between the government and an American company, Richmond Development Company. Dubbed the Richmond Scandal, the information helped bring down the country’s then prime minister Edward Lowassa and caused the dissolution of his cabinet.

Melo said the goal of JamiiForums is to provide Tanzanians with a platform to engage in political discourse and a space that allows them to freely and sometimes anonymously disclose information important to the public.

“Whistleblowing is not a crime -- it is something there to help the nation,” said Melo. “I still believe that everyone should be aware of this and people should help whistleblowers -- [they] should protect them -- and everyone should express themselves freely.”

Cybercrimes Act ‘intimidates’ whistleblowers

JamiiForums has come under increasing scrutiny from the government. According to Melo, even before his arrest, police had questioned him several times in the last year.

Melo said police seemed to be focusing on very specific posts including ones that alleged widespread fraud within the country’s largest commercial bank CRDB.

In September 2015, Tanzania’s government passed the Cybercrimes Act. The law makes it illegal to write or publish “false, deceptive, misleading or in accurate” statements online. It also grants police the power to “issue an order to any person in possession of such data compelling him to disclose such data,” in the course of an investigation.

The law has been criticized by human rights activists around the world. The Washington Post’s editorial board said the law would “stifle informed policy debates.”

Tanzanian activist Maria Sarungi Tsehai who helped orchestrate #FreeMaxenceMelo said the Cybercrimes Act should be revised as to not punish whistleblowers. “This law is now being used in such away that it is being used to intimidate individuals,” she said. “Not only someone like Max or the JamiiForums people, but to intimidate all the users, because now people will be scared to post information.”

Jamii Media Challenging Cybercrimes Act in Court

Melo’s business, Jamii Media Company, is currently challenging two articles of the Cybercrimes Act in court. Jamii Media Company is arguing that the law violates citizens’ “rights to privacy, freedom of expression and the right to be heard.”

“This fight is for Tanzanians, for media practitioners -- whether from Tanzania or abroad we should try to use the Tanzanian case as an example to protect online whistleblowers and to protect freedom of expression around the globe,” said Melo.

The case which is set to be heard by The Tanzanian High Court on February 20, 2017 has far reaching implications for Melo and the East African Nation.

It comes at a time when issues of press freedom are growing across the region. The media is facing unprecendented pressure from the security services in Kenya, with journalists protesting twice in September against the killing of two of their colleagues.

Jerome Starkey, a journalist at The Times, was deported from Kenya on 10 December. He believes his expulsion may be linked to his investigation into corruption around the 2014 Eurobond.



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