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Tanzanian Press Advocate Hopes Prize 'Lifts Veil' on Abuses

FILE - People with black tape covering their mouths attend a press conference of local journalists to mark World Press Freedom Day at the offices of the Iwacu media group in Bujumbura, Burundi, May 3, 2015.

A Tanzanian journalist awarded a prestigious prize for press freedom said Wednesday he hoped the recognition will "lift the corner of the veil" on the plight of reporters in his homeland.

Maxence Melo, a blogger whose critical writings of President John Magufuli have landed him in hot water, was named one of five recipients of the International Press Freedom Prize by the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ).

The New York-based panel said Melo, a co-founder of the Jamii Forums blog in 2006, was a "champion of online freedom of expression" who never flinched, even in the face of Tanzania's strict internet laws.

Melo has been in court more than 80 times, the CPJ said, and is still facing prosecution for refusing to disclose his sources in a story criticizing Tanzanian authorities.

His work focuses on corruption, tax evasion and human rights violations.

Melo said he hoped the award would turn the spotlight on the exceptional difficulties faced by journalists in Tanzania.

"This prize lifts a corner of the veil on what is happening in our country," said Melo, who is barred from leaving Tanzania's financial capital and biggest city, Dar es Salaam.

"Never before in our country has a government violated press freedom so much."

Tanzania fell 25 places in Reporters Without Borders (RSF) press freedom index this year, with the media watchdog branding Magufuli a "press freedom predator" who attacked journalists with impunity.

"It is of course not good news that my country is making the headlines because of its laws and practices that violate freedoms of the press and expression," Melo said.

"With the announcement of this award, I think the international community will take a greater interest in what is happening in Tanzania, in the difficult environment in which the media and human rights defenders work in Tanzania."

Melo, a father of three, said he had received death threats.

"It is obvious that I am afraid, afraid for my personal safety, but also for the safety of my family," he said.

Under Magufuli, who was elected in 2015, opposition party rallies have been banned, their leaders arrested and prosecuted, newspapers closed and journalists and artists harassed and threatened with death.

In 2015, the East African country was 75th in the world in RSF's press freedom rankings. By 2019, it had slid to 118th.