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Tanzania's President John Magufuli leaves after inspecting a guard of honour during his official visit to Nairobi, Kenya October 31, 2016. REUTERS/Thomas Mukoya

Tanzania’s President John Magufuli took office in October 2015 promising to stamp out government corruption and to be accountable to ordinary citizens. Instead, in a country that had been considered a leader in the region on human rights, he has restricted free expression, association, and assembly.

On Thursday, 65 independent organizations sent the president a letter urging him to protect “rights which are crucial to civic space.” The groups highlight recent cases of harassment of journalists, human rights activists, and opposition politicians and say that recent laws and regulations criminalize freedom of expression on both social and traditional media.

The range of concerns raised in Thursday’s letter illustrate the rapid clawback in rights in Tanzania.

Journalists have been attacked physically, abducted, arbitrarily arrested, detained, and prosecuted, the groups said. Political opposition members have been prosecuted for insulting the president during political rallies, and the groups alleged that some have been attacked, and in at least some instances, killed.

The organizations drew particular attention to recent regulations that require bloggers and online streaming services to pay an exorbitant annual US$900 fee. The groups also criticize the 2015 Cybercrimes Act, which gives the government dangerously broad authority to ban articles and social media posts.

In a depressingly typical example, the Tanzania Communications Regulatory Authority fined five television stations in January for broadcasting “offensive and unethical” content after the stations aired a Tanzanian human rights organization’s media statement detailing allegations of abuses in 2017.

The government should “create an enabling environment for civil society and the media,” the groups said. And they urged the president to protect freedom of expression and the media by seeking amendments to restrictive legislation and investigating attacks on journalists and others.

It is clear that people are increasingly afraid to speak out in Tanzania these days for fear of well-documented reprisals. The Tanzanian government, and those supporting it, should take active steps to reverse the rapid decline in freedoms and restore Tanzania to its place as a leader in East Africa committed to protecting human rights.  

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