Tanzania authorities have stepped up repression of opposition parties, nongovernmental organizations, and the media ahead of the country’s general elections on October 28, 2020, Human Rights Watch said on Wednesday.
Since mid-June, the government has arrested at least 17 opposition party members and critics of the government, suspended a rights group and canceled the license of another, and blocked other major rights groups from observing the upcoming elections.
The authorities have also imposed new restrictions on the media, revoking the license of a newspaper affiliated with an opposition member and restricting some news outlets because of their reporting on Covid-19, which President John Magufuli says no longer exists in the country.
“It’s no coincidence that the Tanzanian government has increased its repression of the opposition, activists groups, and the media so close to the elections,” said Oryem Nyeko, Africa researcher at Human Rights Watch. “Instead of upholding the right to free expression at this critical time, authorities have instead adopted measures that raise concerns about the elections being free and fair.”
The government has arbitrarily arrested and briefly detained members of opposition political parties, notably the ACT-Wazalendo Party and Chadema, the main opposition party, on such grounds as “endangering the peace” or unlawful assembly. In July, the police arrested and held Issa Ponda, a Muslim leader, for nine days after he held a news conference calling for free and fair elections.
The government has also imposed new restrictions on the media and on freedom of expression online. It adopted regulations that ban Tanzanian broadcasters from working with foreign broadcasters without staff from the Tanzania Communications and Regulatory Authority or other government agency present. It also adopted regulations that criminalize a broad range of social media and online posts, including those that support organizing demonstrations or that “promote homosexuality.”
The authorities have also fined or suspended media outlets for covering politically sensitive topics, including the coronavirus. On July 6, the Communications Authority banned Kwanza TV, an online television station, for 11 months because of its Instagram post reporting on a Covid-19 health alert by the United States Embassy about Tanzania. The authority’s summons letter to Kwanza TV accused the station of being “unpatriotic.”
Two editors of independent newspapers, who did not wish to have their names used, said that officials had informally told them not to publish material that the government would not like. One of the editors said they had been “subtly warned” not to give prominent coverage to an opposition member Tundu Lissu and the former foreign minister Bernard Membe, who recently defected from the ruling party, Chama Cha Mapinduzi (CCM).
The authorities have also taken action against key nongovernmental organizations to limit their ability to monitor the elections. In July, the National Electoral Commission issued lists of the organizations approved to act as election observers and to conduct voter education, excluding major organizations that have historically coordinated election monitoring in the country.
The authorities have also stepped up their restrictions on organizations working to promote the rights and health of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) people ahead of the elections. Human Rights Watch has documented the government’s repression of LGBT people and activism, including arbitrary arrests and the use of forced anal exams, a discredited method of seeking evidence of homosexual conduct that is cruel and degrading and can amount to a form of torture, in the context of a wider political repression over the past five years.
Since President Magufuli took office in 2015, the government has cracked down on the media and civic space by passing and enforcing restrictive laws and threatening to cancel the registration of organizations critical of the government. The government has also placed restrictions on political opposition and given the registrar of political parties wide discretionary powers, including to cancel parties’ registration.
The authorities have also placed new limits on public interest litigation, which raises concerns about the right to redress for rights violations, Human Rights Watch said. On June 10, Parliament limited the ability of groups to legally challenge a law or policy that allegedly violates the constitution’s bill of rights. The move appears aimed to prevent groups from filing public interest cases on behalf of victims of government abuses.
“All of the actions that the government has taken in recent weeks affect conditions for a fair electoral playing field,” Nyeko said. “If Tanzania’s elections are going to be free and fair, the government needs to allow rights groups and the media to work independently, and for political opposition and critics to express their views freely.”