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Maxence Melo is well known in Tanzania for championing digital rights and freedom of expression. As the founder and executive director of the country’s most popular digital platform, JamiiForums.com, he has received recognition both at home and abroad for his efforts in demanding accountability using the digital space.
Maxence has been arrested and charged several times, appearing in court 152 times in the past five years, with authorities pushing him to reveal identities of whistle-blowers on JamiiForums. Despite this, Tanzanians still express themselves on his platform without fear.
In an exclusive interview with The Africa Report conducted in Swahili and English, Maxence speaks about Tanzania’s draconian laws that continue to criminalise participation in the digital space. He also he speaks about how his platform is determined to protect whistle-blowers and courageous citizens online.
This interview has been slightly edited for clarity.
The Africa Report: How can you describe the freedom of expression in the social media space now since President Magufuli is gone?
Maxence Melo: Five to six years ago, we started witnessing the shrinkage of civic space in Tanzania and attacks on freedom of expression. [President John] Magufuli’s administration fuelled it and things [got] even worse. As a country, we have been through difficult times, but ever since we got the sixth president, Samia Suluhu Hassan, she has made it clear that the media should not be banned and people should be free to speak.
President Samia also ordered her aides to start reviewing all laws that jeopardise media freedom and freedom of expression. We have a president who seems to highly respect human rights, but I have to emphasise that this is a process and we need to repeal all bad laws. In my view, since President Samia Suluhu Hassan came to power, she has shown goodwill and this is worth applauding.
During the regime of the late Magufuli you were arrested and charged several times, why was that?
Well, I went through these challenges because of bad laws. The Cybercrimes Act, Electronic and Postal Communications Act and Criminal Procedures were cited by authorities to push us to reveal our sources of information.
As an NGO, our policy directs us to protect courageous citizens and whistle-blowers but the authorities were pushing us to reveal our clients’ data. Surprisingly, letters from the authorities made it clear that they wanted to prosecute our clients without stating what crime had been committed. All I did was stand firm and defend these true patriots and our policy.
What is your take on Tanzanian laws that supervise online platforms and the civic space?
Most of the current laws are repressive and that is why the new government intends to amend some of them. These laws kill innovative ideas among the youth and have even resulted in self-censorship which is bad for the civic space. There are regulatory challenges and bureaucratic processes that inhibit growth of Tanzania’s startup ecosystem and are killing the sector. Erroneous legislation works against the drive to a diverse economy where different players contribute to the national GDP.
I am glad that despite these bad laws, there are still several players who kept pushing to open the civic space through different approaches. Civil societies, media houses, digital innovators and active citizens have been actively engaging and learning new skills to protect this space. The resilience shown in the past five years is commendable.
Jamii Forums has been a whistleblower’s tool for revealing various injustices and misuse of public funds. Does this promote accountability and transparency even in dark times as was experienced during the Magufuli regime where the government highly controlled online activities?
Regardless of whether it was during Magufuli’s time or not, courageous citizens have been revealing issues that needed accountability and good governance in Tanzania. It’s very important for people to understand everything that is happening and we need resilient and courageous citizens who demand accountability and democracy. But also, it’s important to understand difficult people: difficult times come and go and what we need is to be bold and new chapters will be open. Patriotic citizens should be bold to protect the civic and digital space for our national interests.
Online platforms offer a breathing space for citizens to air views directed towards public officials or public entities; they can discuss or comment on matters of public interest or be part of political debate. If you over-regulate this space, you undermine free speech that is guaranteed by our constitution.
Are you currently receiving any pressure from the government?
No. I must say we are in a transitional period and the president clearly stated this while speaking to anti-corruption officials in Dar es Salaam. She insisted that whistle-blowers must be protected and this statement is important for platforms like JamiiForums. She also said the media and citizens should be free to speak out. The pressure that was there before has declined since she got into power, but I must admit that it’s too early to draw a conclusion.
How do you protect the privacy of those who express their opinions through Jamii Forums?
JamiiForums has a very clear policy that protects people’s privacy and it is not just because I (Maxence) have decided. All these policies are online. We have also been registered as a non-governmental organisation that specifically advocates for digital rights including the right to privacy. We have created a strong system to make sure that when someone logs in to our platforms they feel free and safe.
Technology and social media have brought power back to the people and that is why rulers are working hard to limit these tools.
Since Jamii Forums started back in 2006, no one has ever been arrested for using the platform; no one has been charged for what he/she published. We have a system in place and a good team that reviews the user’s content to ensure it is sound and in accordance to our own guidelines.
Freedom of expression has become democratised by social media, but today, when a country like Nigeria takes away that one tool, what can people do?
When Tanzanians are facing challenges on social media in terms of laws, Nigerians and even Kenyans were laughing at us. But I must say, there are moments when you have to choose whether to be silent or stand up! When your neighbour’s house is on fire, take care of your own.
Technology and social media have brought power back to the people and that is why rulers are working hard to limit these tools. In terms of what is happening in Nigeria, authorities can limit the use of social media for some time but it cannot take away power from citizens because people are intelligent enough to navigate the space and still express themselves.
The Internet may be managed by governments but it is not owned by the government. It is about time we provide our people with digital security skills. The number of internet users in Tanzania is about 30million, according to Tanzania Communication Regulatory Authority, and we have been working with local and international partners to create awareness.
We expect to have 50 million internet users come 2025, so we have to be bold to make sure that they understand how digital platforms work. Moreover, Jamii Forums reaches over two million people per day so it’s important to build capacity in secondary schools and universities to ensure that people understand their rights and responsibilities when using the internet and digital tools.
What is your take on the government’s view that some NGOs receive funds to interfere with national security?
Several nations have been using ‘national security’ laws as a way to suppress serious debates on issues that rulers don’t want to hear. Most laws are designed in a way that they align with rulers’ interests. The NGOs Act in Tanzania needs to be reviewed and those ‘national security’ issues should clearly be addressed.
What can Tanzania do now to ensure that freedom of expression is protected?
First, we need to have free and active citizens and this should not be the responsibility of JamiiForums alone. It is everyone’s responsibility to make sure we encourage citizens to be active in politics, business, media, civil society, etc. Secondly, we must create public awareness about freedom of expression and why it matters.
I remember when we were pushing back against some of these bad laws; some of our colleagues in the digital space remained silent until they were subjected to state pressure. I think we should work together now as the government has shown good will. We need everyone’s inputs to get better laws that will create an enabling environment in the digital space.
Internet blockages have become the new tool for silencing citizens. We saw it in Egypt, Uganda, Ethiopia and even in Tanzania during the last elections. Is there a safe space for dissidence?
For people with critical opinions, platforms like JamiiForums are safe spaces because they guarantee their anonymity.
Those who do not use such platforms that have strong policies on protection of their rights need to understand some basics on how they can use social media in a meaningful way.
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