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Despite Arrests and Intimidation, Tanzanian Journalist Fights to Ensure Press Freedom

Sandra Mims Rowe, left, and Maxence Melo Mubyazi pose onstage at the Committee to Protect Journalists' 29th Annual International Press Freedom Awards, Nov. 21, 2019 in New York.
Sandra Mims Rowe, left, and Maxence Melo Mubyazi pose onstage at the Committee to Protect Journalists' 29th Annual International Press Freedom Awards, Nov. 21, 2019 in New York.

Maxence Melo calls himself an “accidental journalist.” He says the website he founded in Tanzania, Jamii Forums, has a simple mission: give the youth a voice, offer a space for free expression and fight corruption.

But the impact of the site and the response by Tanzanian authorities have been anything but simple. Melo has gone to court 137 times in the past three years, been arrested twice and spent 14 nights in jail.

“I had lots of restrictions in terms of my freedoms but I know it’s the price we pay for these kinds of fundamental freedoms,” he told VOA.

This week Melo was honored with the Committee to Protect Journalists’ International Press Freedom Award. He joined journalists from Brazil, India and Nicaragua in receiving the prestigious award.

Jamii Forums

Created in 2006, Jamii Forums is mainly published in Swahili and has readers in Tanzania, Kenya and Uganda. It gained notoriety in 2007 with a story regarding corruption in the Central Bank of Tanzania, where millions of dollars were siphoned off. Melo said that was the first time the site was on the receiving end of official intimidation and authorities wanted to know who ran the platform.

In 2008 the site ran stories uncovering corruption in power generation contracts that ultimately led to the resignation of the prime minister and the dissolution of the cabinet. Melo said he has been under a microscope since that time.

He said government officials, members of parliament and opposition party members regularly enter the forum and engage with other users. He said the anger he receives from those in power is not about misreporting the news; it’s about reporting things officials do not like.

No fake news

“No one is alleging us for fake news. No one is alleging us for any kind of false information,” he said. “We are being alleged for not cooperating with state organs to reveal our sources of information. And we believe the source of information for a journalist, for a media house, is the key person to whatever kind of story that they are working on.”

The media environment became even more treacherous in 2015 when Tanzania enacted its Cyber Crimes Act. The law criminalizes online speech deemed to be false, deceptive, misleading or inaccurate. It has been used to prosecute news sites like Jamii Forums.

“It’s not only used against journalists and against citizen journalists, it’s used against critical voices. It’s used against almost everyone,” he said.

Additional laws have restricted journalists’ access to governmental information and statistics, he said.

“There are lots of laws. You need to understand how to navigate through them and it’s kind of tough at times,” he said. “I think I’ve read almost all laws — around 13 of them — which [exist] within the industry, and you find some flaws or some sections that do safeguard you. But the problem is, until you’re safe it’s when the court decides like you’re free and you are, you [know] that the allegations against you are not genuine.”

Fighting for press freedom

Still, Melo said he is determined to continue practicing journalism in his home country.

“Tanzania has been a good example in Africa,” he said. “We have been like ambassadors of change in Africa. And we have gone through this kind of challenging time for almost five years of lots of challenges to journalists — to critical voices in Tanzania. I am still optimistic that there is room for change. And we as citizens have a room to advocate for policy change.”

He has challenged aspects of the Cyber Crimes Act in court without success but says he is not giving up.

“We have room to challenge these laws. I know it comes at a huge price. As for me, I’ve tried my best. I have gone to the high court. I’ve challenged the Cyber Crimes Act section 32 and section 38 of the law. I still believe those people who can take it to the next stage. We are still able to push back.”