Tanzania detains popular Web site editors

New York, February 29, 2008—CPJ condemns the arbitrary arrest of two popular online editors without charge. The two were detained and interrogated for 24 hours in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, on February 18, in what observers of the case say was a politically motivated attempt to shutter the site.

The two young editors, Maxence Mello and Mike Mushi, aged 21 and 18 respectively, host the extremely popular Jambo Forums, a public discussion site with more than 2,000 members and 6 million hits in February alone. Topics on the site cover everything from politics to culture to entertainment. Police confiscated three computers used to host their Web site, shutting down the site for five days while the equipment remained under police custody, Mello told CPJ.

According to Mello’s defense lawyer, Tundu Lissu, the police had no official charges against the editors and said the orders to arrest them had come from the president’s office. The Inspector General of Police, Said Mwema, stated in a press conference on February 20 in Dar es Salaam that they were arrested because they were suspected of criminal activity—which may include the “dissemination of wrong information” through the Jambo Forums Web site.
“The Tanzanian government must refrain from arresting journalists in an attempt to silence public dialogue,” said CPJ’s Executive Director Joel Simon. “Such arbitrary arrests set a dangerous precedent for the free dissemination of information online.”

Maxence Mello told CPJ that police arrested him at his college, the Dar es Salaam Institute of Technology, at 4 p.m. and then took him to his house where they lured then arrested his colleague, Mike Mushi. They were interrogated throughout the night over several postings on the site that criticized the government, and released at 5 p.m. the following day.

Local journalists said the forum had played a major role in exposing a suspect energy contract the former Prime Minister Edward Lowassa made with an American energy firm. The contract was published in full on the Jambo Forums site, Mello said. The former minister resigned on February 7 after a parliamentary probe into the incident. Four other suspected fraudulent contracts between the government and foreign companies are also currently posted on the Web site, Mello told CPJ.

Lissu said the two moderators were questioned specifically on this matter, and he as well as local journalists say they suspect the detention was directly tied to the posting of the contested energy contract. This kind of interrogation of journalists is part of a pattern of ongoing harassment of the local media, Lissu added.