RSF calls for release of whistleblowing website’s editor

Reporters Without Borders (RSF) condemns the detention of Maxence Melo, the co-founder and editor of Jamii Forums, East Africa’s leading website for anonymous citizen journalists and whistleblowers, and calls for his immediate release.

Melo was arrested at his Dar es Salaam home yesterday after being harassed by the authorities for several months to reveal the identity of anonymous contributors to the site who have helped to exposed major corruption scandals involving leading privately-owned companies.

Melo has so far refused to comply with orders issued under article 32 of the very controversial Cybercrimes Act, which gives the police the power to demand such information for the purposes of judicial investigations.

In order to be able to respond to these requests, JamiiForums has repeatedly asked the police to say what offences its users are supposed to have committed, but the police have never been able to demonstrate that actual judicial investigations have been initiated.

According to Melo’s lawyer, the police have referred their requests to a court for execution without every notifying Jamii Forums. Melo was arrested on the grounds that he did not appear in court for hearings, although he did not know they were taking place.

He is facing at least a year in prison or a fine of 3 million shillings (or both) on a charge of obstructing an investigation under article 22 of the Cybercrimes Act although the police have not yet been able to demonstrate that any formal investigation is under way.

“We condemn Maxence Melo’s arbitrary arrest, which is meant to intimidate him, and we call for his immediate release,” RSF said. “Judicial issues are being used for political purposes with the aim of gagging the government’s critics. John Magufuli has said a great deal about combatting corruption ever since he became president, but it is the people who exposed corruption who are now being harassed!”

As well as asking the police to justify their requests for the identity of sources, Jamii Forums has been challenging the Cybercrimes Act’s constitutionality for the past few months, especially article 32 on disclosing the identity of sources and article 38 allowing interrogations in camera.

According to some sources, the Cybercrimes law was drafted specifically with the aim of being used against Jamii Forums, a mainly Swahili-language website on which users can post information anonymously. The site guarantees the anonymity of its users but verifies their identity to prevent disinformation.

When Melo met RSF in September, he said more than half of Tanzania’s parliamentarians were subscribers to the site. Several journalists have confirmed that many of their article about corruption were based on information originally reported by Jamii Forums users.

Melo’s lawyer Benedict Ishabakaki said: “A source of information is a corner stone of democracy. Once the public is threatened to share information, they are indirectly silenced from demanding accountability and most importantly for advocating for their rights.”

Under President Magufuli, who took office in November 2015, the Tanzanian authorities have taken a tougher line with the media. Several radio stations were shut down in the space of a few months and at least ten people have been prosecuted over their posts on social networks.

Journalists have told RSF they are no longer free to criticize the president and his associates. If they do, an official soon telephones them and threatens them with prosecution.

The Media Services Act that President Magufuli signed into law last month, replacing the Newspaper Act, which dated back to the 1970s, has been much criticized by media organizations and the Media Council of Tanzania, which deplored the failure to take its recommendations into account.

The new law provides for heavy prison sentences and fines, and restricts the freedom of journalists by requiring that they be officially registered and by allowing more control of content. It also requires all social media users and contributors to be accredited.

Tanzania is ranked 71st out of 180 countries in RSF’s 2016 World Press Freedom Index.

Published on
Updated on 15.12.2016