Tanzania police raid popular website’s office in effort to learn users’ identities

Nairobi, December 14, 2016–Tanzanian security forces should immediately and unconditionally release Maxence Melo, the co-founder of popular online discussion portal Jamii Forum, the Committee to Protect Journalists said today. Police raided the website’s office in the capital Dar es Salaam today, after detaining Melo yesterday.

Melo’s lawyer, Benedict Ishabakaki, told the independent newspaper The Citizen that police detained his client yesterday for interrogation regarding a case police filed demanding his cooperation in determining the identities of several users of the online forum who have written about such controversial issues as corruption. Today the website reported that police raided its office, questioned employees about their duties, and took two additional employees, whom the website did not name, to a police station for further questioning.

Founded in 2006, Jamii Forum is among the most popular online discussion sites in East Africa, and hosts frank debates about such topics as graft in the public sector and government incompetence, mostly in Kiswahili.

“Maxence Melo and Jamii Forum give people across the region an important platform to discuss serious issues of public concern,” CPJ Africa Program Coordinator Angela Quintal said from New York. “The Tanzanian government would do better to investigate allegations of corruption, rather than pressuring a website to violate its users’ trust and privacy.”

Reporting the police raid today, Jamii Forum attempted to reassure readers about the security of their personal information, which the website said was encrypted on servers located outside Tanzania.

Tanzanian President John Magufuli has taken a series of steps to limit media freedom since he was elected in October 2015.

On November 15, 2016, he signed into law new regulations that journalists and the political opposition fear will curb press freedom by requiring journalists and social media users to be licensed by a Media Services Council, whose independence free expression groups feared was not adequately protected, among other measures, according to The Citizen newspaper.

At least 10 Tanzanians have been charged with “insulting” president Magufuli, including on the messaging platform WhatsApp, according to media reports. All have been charged under a tough cybercrimes law enacted in 2015, and are at various stages of the legal process, the reports said.

Neville Meena, secretary of the Tanzania Editors Forum, told CPJ that the cybercrime law was being used as a tool to censor the public and the media and to limit criticism of the government. He said the organization backed a case filed by Jamii Media, which runs Jamii Forums, to have sections of the law overturned by the High Court of Tanzania. The court is expected to rule in February, Meena said.

Tanzanian authorities have also shuttered radio stations, halted live transmission of parliamentary debates, and taken dozens of newspapers off the streets for what the government described as licensing violations, according to news accounts.

Tanzanian government spokesman Hassan Abass did not immediately return CPJ’s calls and text messages requesting comment.