Tanzania: Opposition politicians jailed for ‘insulting’ President

Civic Space 3 min read
ARTICLE 19

ARTICLE 19 condemns the imprisonment of two Tanzanian opposition politicians on 26 February 2018 for ‘insulting’ the President. Joseph Mbilinyi, opposition party CHADEMA MP for Mbeya constituency and Emmanuel Masonga, CHADEMA’s Secretary for the Southern Highland Zone, were each sentenced to five months in prison. ARTICLE 19 is alarmed by these efforts to silence criticism, which put human rights and democracy at serious risk in the country. We urge the release of both politicians and an end to the criminalisation and harassment of those criticising the government.

Mbilinyi and Masonga were charged on 16 January 2018 for comments at a rally in December 2017, allegedly linking the shooting of opposition MP Tundu Lissu to the President, as well as the abduction of other opposition supporters. Lissu was shot multiple times outside his home in September 2017.

The two were charged under Section 89 of the Penal Code which sets out criminal sanctions for anyone who:

(a) uses obscene, abusive or insulting language to any other person, in such a manner as is likely to cause a breach of the peace; or

(b) brawls or in any other manner creates, a disturbance in such a manner as is likely to cause a breach of the peace.

The space for freedom of expression in Tanzania has reduced significantly since President Magufuli took office in 2015, with the closure of newspapers and media outlets for ‘sedition’ and the disappearance of journalists. In September, following the shooting of Tundu Lissu, newspaper MwanaHalisi was issued a two year ban for an article on the incident.

While the Constitution as amended in 2005 sets out the right to freedom of expression under Article 18, numerous laws remain in place criminalising certain forms of expression through sedition and online defamation. These laws, such as the Cybercrimes Act and the Media Services Act, are used to target those expressing opposing views to the government or seeking accountability for rights violations.

Under international law, public officials must tolerate a larger degree of criticism than ordinary citizens. The institution of criminal proceedings against individuals for criticizing public officials, and raising issues of public interest, is a violation of the right to free expression and Tanzania’s international legal obligations.

“Free expression in Tanzania has been dealt another blow by this latest sentence, which will further restrict the space for political debate and public discussion. Magufuli’s intolerance of critical speech and reporting presents a real risk to democracy, particularly when attacks on politicians and journalists are becoming more frequent,” said Henry Maina, ARTICLE 19 Eastern Africa Regional Director.

We urge the release of both politicians, and an end to the closure of media outlets and criminalisation of expression in the country. The government must ensure an end to such prosecutions, and a thorough and speedy investigation into the attack on Lissu and the disappearance of journalists, including Azory Gwanda.