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.
The text of Maxence Melo Mubyazi’s acceptance speech, as prepared for delivery, is below
I am an accidental journalist. I never imagined that I would be a recipient of such a prestigious international award. An award that is a result of doing what is right and what everyone should uphold as a way of life. I am overwhelmed to be among the recipients of this award. It’s a great honor!
I am the founder and editor-in-chief of JamiiForums. JamiiForums exists to inform rather than to censor, to unite rather than divide, to debate rather than ignore, and that will protect those who are courageous enough to expose the truth that the powerful would rather hide.
Today as I receive this award, I have been in court 137 times in the past three years, I have been arrested twice, spent 14 nights in detention. I have endured travel bans. In the next five days, I will be in court for the judgment in one of the three prosecutions against me since my December 2016 arrest.
Tonight, I dedicate this award to all my fellow Tanzanians who have suffered, been tortured, threatened, intimidated or died while exercising their right to freedom of expression. Some are missing. One of them is a freelance journalist, Azory Gwanda, who went missing two years ago today. We continue to ask #WhereIsAzory?
This award is an encouragement for all patriotic journalists and citizens. Despite threats, intimidation, and suffering, they speak out on issues that affect our nations. In doing so, they are playing a key role in enhancing transparency, accountability, democracy, and human rights.
Thank you to the Committee to Protect Journalists, for recognizing and honoring their courage and sacrifice. Democracy depends on an informed citizenry to survive. Without adequate information, global citizens are essentially disempowered. Press freedom is a backbone of that democracy.
I thank God for taking me through this journey. I thank my beautiful wife and our three amazing children for their courage and daily inspiration in my work. Thanks to the support from the JamiiForums team, members and all those who support our work in so many ways.
Thank you. Asante sana!