PRESS RELEASE: Tanzania Should Immediately Release Digital Rights Activist Maxence Melo

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By CIPESA Writer |

The police in Tanzania has detained Maxence Melo, a freedom of expression activist and co-founder of the popular online discussion platform, Jamii Forums. Although no charges have been brought against Melo, who was arrested at 1pm on Tuesday, December 13, his lawyer says the detention is an intimidation tactic on the backdrop of an ongoing case before the courts on the constitutionality of the Cybercrime Act of 2015.

The Collaboration on International ICT Policy for East and Southern Africa (CIPESA) strongly condemns this unjustifiable arrest, and urges Tanzanian authorities to immediately release Melo and henceforth cease any intimidation of Jamii Media (the company under which Jamii Forums is run), its staff, and other social media users. Melo’s arrest extends the steady and worrying deterioration in media freedom and internet freedom since President Pombe Magufuli took the reins of power at the end of last year. As one user on the platform noted, Jamii Forums provides Tanzanians with an alternative source of information in addition to “relying on traditional media outlets, which are increasingly becoming state-controlled.”

According to Melo’s lawyer, Benedict Alex Ishabakaki, the activist was arrested because of Jamii Media’s refusal to comply with police demands for disclosure of the identities of users who posted “sensitive information” on the platform. Last July, police officials issued a letter to Melo indicating intention to sue him for criminal liability for failure to comply with disclosure notices. In the letter, police put Melo on notice under Section 22 of the Cybercrimes Act 2015 for obstruction of investigations.

Section 22 of the Act states:

(1) A person who intentionally and unlawfully destroys, deletes, alters, conceals, modifies, renders computer data meaningless, ineffective or useless with intent to obstruct or delay investigation commits an offence and on conviction, is liable to a fine of not less than three million shillings or to imprisonment for a term not less than one year or both.

(2) A person who intentionally and unlawfully prevents the execution or fails to comply with an order issued under this Act, commits an offence and is liable, on conviction, to a fine of not less than three million shillings or to imprisonment for a term of not less than one year or to both.

See Cybercrimes Act 2015

A number of Tanzanian social media users have been charged under this law that took effect in September 2015. According to Ishabakaki, Jamii Media’s refusal to comply with the police disclosure notices was partly informed by a lack of regulations governing the Act. “At the time [the notices were issued], there were no mechanisms in place or procedures for disclosure of the requested information,” said Ishabakaki. Moreover, he added, “We refused to disclose the information because it is against the constitutional guarantees of individuals’ right to privacy under Article 18.”

In April 2016, after being issued with eight letters by Tanzanian police demanding the disclosure of the Internet Protocol (IP) addresses of users, Jamii Media went to court challenging the disclosure orders by the law enforcement agency. The users whose identities authorities sought were linked to bringing to light corruption scandals in the oil and banking sectors. According to the State of Internet Freedom in Africa 2016 report, the disclosure notices indicate a bias towards protecting notable figures implicated in scandals or against whom users have used profanities.

In its petition, Jamii Media challenged the arbitrary letters from the police and specifically the provisions of Section 32 and 38 of the Cybercrime Act that appear to infringe the right to be heard, the right to privacy and freedom of expression as provided for under the constitution. Initially, the government responded by raising six preliminary points of objection against the petition, which it termed frivolous and vexatious. The government stated that Jamii Media should explore other remedies rather than file a constitutional petition. During preliminary hearings, judges dismissed the objections and the case proceeded in court. A ruling on the case is due on February 20, 2017.

According to Ishabakaki, Melo’s detention tantamounts to police interference in the ongoing case, the issues of which are still before the constitutional court. “Police officers are misusing their power,” he said.

Prior to his arrest, Melo was summoned to appear in court, by way of telephone call. Upon arrival at the court, an officer told him to appear at a police station, where he was immediately detained.

“No charges have been filed. We were unable to apply for bail yesterday as the law requires detention for 24 hours before formal application of bail,” Ishabakaki told CIPESA on the morning of December 14. He added that police officials had indicated that Melo would appear in court this morning but as at 11am local time, this had not happened. “They are not prepared. It is just harassment. They want information from him,” said the lawyer.

Back in 2008, Melo, along with Jamii Forums co-founder Mike Mushi, were detained and interrogated by police for 24 hours in Dar es Salaam in what was believed to be a politically motivated attempt to shut down their site. Police confiscated computers used to host the website, causing it to go off air for five days while the equipment remained in police custody.

In September 2015, the Tanzania Human Rights Defenders Coalition (THRDC) filed a case challenging the constitutionality of some provisions of the Cybercrime Act, which it contends infringe constitutional provisions on freedom of expression, right to information, and privacy.

The Tanzanian government is accordingly urged to refrain from applying this law, or any other of the repressive laws that remain on its statute books, to gag legitimate expression by citizens be it in the online or offline domain.

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