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Tanzania Drops Threat of Prison Over Publishing Independent Statistics

Amendment to Statistics Act a Step in Right Direction for Free Expression

Part of the city of Dar es Salaam is seen from an airplane, in Tanzania, March 20, 2018. © 2018 AP Photo/Ben Curtis

Last week, Tanzania’s Parliament passed an amendment to its troubling Statistics Act, which removes a threat of prison for civil society groups that publish independent statistical information.

The Statistics Act of 2015 made it a crime for people in Tanzania to publish “false official statistics” or to disseminate information that would result in the “distortion of facts.” In 2017, police arrested opposition politician Zitto Kabwe for violating the law for remarks he made about Tanzania’s economic growth. He was never charged and eventually released. In 2018, Parliament amended the law to make it a crime to publish statistics without the approval of the National Bureau of Statistics, and disseminating statistics that “invalidate, distort or discredit” the government bodies’ statistics. 

The Tanzanian government came under heavy criticism for the Act. Local NGO Twaweza criticized the harsh penalties it provided while the Tanzania Human Rights Defenders Coalition said it hampered the work of human rights defenders. Last year, the World Bank said the law was out of line with international standards and shared its concerns with the government.

The pressure seems to have worked. Although new amendments to eight laws proposed this year would have reinforced these and other restrictions on basic freedoms of association and expression, the amendment relating to the statistics law that Parliament passed seems to have lifted at least some restrictions. Specifically, the amendment now says that every person has a right to collect and disseminate statistical information and removes criminal liability for publishing independent statistics. It also sets up new procedures for those seeking to access and publish national data.

In an environment where the government has banned newspapers, fined TV stations, arrested and prosecuted journalists, bloggers, and opposition politicians, and put into effect a slew of legislation that curtails freedom of expression and the right to privacy, this could be one step in the right direction.  

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