The police confiscating offending t-shirts.

Freedom of speech in Tanzania under attack

Several individuals are being prosecuted for defaming President John Pombe Magufuli in the social media. These actions raise questions about the state of free speech in Tanzania and are clearly worrying, says former NAI guest researcher and filmmaker Vicensia Shule. However, people will find other creative ways of speaking their minds and won’t be silenced.

One individual, who described President Magufuli as a bwege, the Swahili word for “stupid person,” on Facebook, was sentenced to three years of imprisonment or pay a fine of about US$ 3, 200. He paid the fine. Another case involves a young woman who called the president kilaza, meaning a “weak student”, in a private message on Whatsapp. She is now facing prosecution. There are several other cases involving the surveillance of private messages and postings on social media and the initiation of court actions.

Offending t-shirts
In addition, the chief whip of the opposition party, Tundu Lissu, used the Swahili expression for “weak dictator” – dikteta uchwara. He was smart enough not to say the president is a weak dictator, but rather suggested that his actions were reminiscent of those of such a person. Nevertheless, he is being been prosecuted and now has a case to answer. However, diketa uchwara has suddenly become the main opposition slogan and t-shirts adorned with it have become popular. Subsequently, the police have confiscated thousands of the offending garments and have arrested people for selling them, and warning people of wearing them.

Vicensia Shule.

“Former President Kikwete would never have bothered with such trivial things. Although Magufuli hasn’t changed the constitution, he is definitely reinforcing existing laws. In fact, Julius Nyerere, our founding president, stated that presidential powers should be clipped to avoid their misuse at a later date. Perhaps we have taken our freedom of speech for granted and have been lulled into believing that an elected president would never monitor what we say on social media,” Shule remarks.

Fight against corruption
Shortly after President Magufuli took office in November last year, he garnered widespread popular support by launching an offensive against corruption, mainly among state officials but also in the business community. Some applauded his actions, while others regarded them as populist. However, to maintain support, he needs to ensure development at the local level in Tanzania. The money misused by corrupt officials must find its way to rural and marginalized people.

“It is mostly the urban middle class that is concerned with democracy and human rights. Rural people need access to water. They want to give birth in safe places without being asked to pay for it. The majority of the Tanzanians need access to quality education and other basic services,” Shule notes.

Online since childhood
There are undoubtedly plenty of basic needs to meet in Tanzania, but there are also very many youngsters born after 1992 who take democracy and freedom of speech for granted. They have literally grown up with the internet and saying what they want on social media. Shule believes it will not be easy for government to restrict young people’s rights of expression. However, she also believes that the president’s recent approach is leading people to develop new skills.

“If young people can’t use social media, they will adopt the old ways of communication ‒ songs, dances, poetry, comedies and spoken stories, everything we had before digital media. It is already happening; people mock leaders and official statements in short dramatic audios and videos. This is the only good thing about censorship. Because it will not silence people, they will find creative ways of telling their minds. I am sure that after five years of Magufuli´s rule there will be an amount of books, songs and films in Tanzania that are very critical of the president – but in subtle way,” Shule concludes.

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