CPJ is honored to present its 2019 International Press Freedom Award to Tanzanian journalist Maxence Melo Mubyazi.
Melo is the owner and co-founder of Jamii Forums, a popular East and Central African website and discussion forum that is a source of breaking news and a secure whistleblowing platform that promotes accountability and transparency in Tanzania. The website hosts frank debates, mostly in Kiswahili, about topics that include graft in the public sector and government incompetence.
Melo, a champion for online freedom of expression and internet governance, has faced persecution from the government. In 2016, Jamii Forums' office was raided by Tanzanian security forces, who also detained Melo for interrogation. After being held for eight days, Melo was charged with managing a domain not registered in Tanzania and obstruction for refusing to disclose the identities of Jamii Forums' users.
The charges against Melo fall under Tanzania's 2015 Cybercrimes Act--sometimes called the Jamii Forums Law--and the 2010 Electronic and Postal Communications Act, which have been used as tools to censor the media and to limit criticism of the government. Jamii Forums has unsuccessfully challenged both laws in court.
In 2017, Melo appeared in court 81 times. Today, he continues to fight in Tanzanian court to clear his name. The cases restrict him from traveling beyond the city of Dar es Salaam without permission. CPJ has repeatedly called on the Tanzanian government to cease its harassment of Melo and Jamii Forums.
In June 2018, Jamii Forums shut down temporarily when the government enacted online content regulations, under the Electronic and Postal Communications Act, which require bloggers and online forums to pay a registration fee of US$900. Melo told CPJ that complying with the law would mean betraying the anonymity guaranteed to users. Fikra Pevu, another news portal that Melo founded, stopped publishing then as well, partly because of the legal and financial pressure created by the content regulations.
Melo was also detained in 2008 on allegations of terrorism on the orders of the then-president's office, and his equipment was confiscated. No charges were filed.
Tanzanian President John Magufuli, who took office in 2015, has clamped down on press freedom and freedom of expression through the use of harsh new laws, harassment, and intimidation. Giving this award to Melo also shines a light on the worrying trend in sub-Saharan Africa of governments using overly broad cybercrime laws to crack down on free speech online.