Jamii Forums founder Maxence Melo is seen in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, on December 19, 2016. Melo was recently acquited on one charge and convicted on another, and released. (AFP/Daniel Hayduk)

Jamii Forums founder Maxence Melo convicted on obstruction charge, released in Tanzania

Nairobi, November 19, 2020 – The Committee to Protect Journalists today expressed concern about the conviction of Maxence Melo, founder of the Tanzanian online discussion platform Jamii Forums, on charges of obstruction.

On November 17, the Kisutu Resident Magistrate’s Court acquitted Melo on charges of operating a website that was not registered in Tanzania, but convicted him of obstructing police investigations by failing to disclose the personal data of whistleblowers who used his platform, according to news reports, Jamii Forums, and Melo’s lawyer, Ben Ishabakaki, who spoke to CPJ via messaging app. The court did not fine Melo or sentence him to prison, and released him on the condition that he not commit any criminal offenses for one year, according to Ishabakaki.

“While we welcome the decision to acquit Maxence Melo on one of the trumped-up charges against him, his conviction on an obstruction charge is deeply disappointing and his conditional release leaves the door open for further judicial harassment,” said CPJ’s sub-Saharan Africa representative, Muthoki Mumo. “This ruling entrenches the dangerous message that the Tanzanian media cannot expect to protect sources. Tanzanian authorities should guarantee that Melo will not face prosecution for his work and reassure the media that they will not be forced to reveal sources.”

Ishabakaki told CPJ that the judgment was unclear on the consequences of breaching the terms of Melo’s discharge. Article 38 of Tanzania’s penal code stipulates that a judge may issue an arrest warrant and a new sentence if an individual on conditional discharge is convicted of a separate criminal offense.

Melo, who received CPJ’s International Press Freedom Award in 2019, was convicted on similar obstruction charges in April and fined $1,300, as CPJ documented at the time. Both cases stemmed from 2016, when Tanzanian authorities raided Jamii Forums and arrested Melo, according to CPJ research and Jamii Forums.