Streets were quiet in Tanzania on Thursday after authorities pledged to beat anyone trying to follow through with planned nationwide protests. The tension points to deeper concerns over the government’s efforts to curb free speech and stifle dissent.
Residents of Dar es Salaam mostly avoided their work stations Thursday. Instead there was heavy police presence in the capital and other cities across the country to stop demonstrations against alleged political repression.
“Today is not the same like the previous union day celebrations. For us business people we celebrate the day and also do our business. But this one there have been planned protests, there is no business and the city is quiet. People are afraid to come out,” said Juma Yusuf, a businessman in Dar es Salaam.
Since President John Magufuli took power in 2015, Tanzanians have been complaining about the shrinking space of freedom of expression and political freedom.
Legislators have passed laws that target media organizations, and several news outlets have been suspended or shut down. Two opposition politicians were jailed for allegedly insulting the president.
In March, legislators passed a law requiring bloggers and other running online platforms to get a license.
“With these regulations, people have started feeling they are in an environment where they can't express themselves freely, but there’s been more and more movements within the parliament that has sort to repress the opposition's influence and that has also led to a lot of people thinking that there is no freedom,” said Maria Sarungi, a local political activist.
Also, some musicians have been arrested for posting videos that officials called "obscene" and not fit for public consumption.
A regional police chief said Wednesday his country was ready for "work, celebrations and not protests," and warned that those found in the streets demonstrating will be beaten like stray dogs.
Amina Hersi, who works with Amnesty International, says the government cannot ignore people’s grievances.
“It will be good for the Tanzanian authorities to allow people to air their opinions and their problems so that it can be addressed rather than being stifled,” said Hersi.
Sarungi hopes that after Thursday’s event the government will review some of its laws that threaten people’s freedom.
“I think the good news is there is some possibility for the government to review and to see whether the actions that have happened so far has really had unwanted influence or effect,” she said.
Tanzanian authorities have insisted the laws passed are to fight hate speech, obscene behavior and protect national security.
Khaleed Abubakar contributed reporting for this story from Dar es Salaam.