Tanzania continues clampdown with new restrictive laws that undermine development

Tanzania's human rights comes in the form of sweeping new legislation, rushed through its parliament last week, that places new punitive restrictions on civil society organisations and tourism, writes Paul Mulindwa.

While the government of Tanzania trumpets its Vision 2025 – a lofty plan to become a middle-income country within the next six years through sustainable development – it continues to thwart real development with its ongoing campaign to clampdown on fundamental freedoms in the country.

Its latest attack on human rights comes in the form of sweeping new legislation, rushed through its parliament last week, that places new punitive restrictions on civil society organisations (CSOs) and tourism in Tanzania.  

The Written Laws (Miscellaneous Amendments) (No 3) Act of 2019, which was published at the end of May, presents amendments to eight different laws including the NGOs Act, Companies Act, Statistics Act, Societies Act and Films and Stage Plays Act. 

The changes to the NGO Act give the Registrar of NGOs sweeping and wide discretionary powers to suspend non-governmental organisations and evaluate, investigate and suspend their operations. The legislation requires these civil society groups, including community-based and self-help groups, to publish their annual audited financial reports in mainstream media imposing a cost burden that could bankrupt small, grassroots organisations. The authorities can also refuse to register any organisation – such as churches or mosques – without giving a valid reason. In terms of these amendments, affected NGOs do not have a clear legal recourse to challenge such decisions.

The Companies Act amendments likewise give the Registrar of Companies broad new powers and wide discretion to de-register a company on the basis of undefined terms such as "terrorism financing" or "operating contrary to its objectives". The changes allow the registrar the discretion to deregister companies for associating with or supporting the activities of NGOs. The implications of this for business, as well as employment and communities' access to services, are serious.

In a country with a booming tourism sector – tourism comprises 15% of the national GDP – and a marketing campaign to attract international film production, lawmakers also enacted changes to the Films and Stage Plays Act that could harm both these industries. The legislation makes it illegal for tourists and filmmakers to leave the country without first submitting to the authorities all raw footage and photos and locations where they were shot during their stay, in order to receive prescribed official clearance.

In enacting these new restrictive laws, the government of President John Magafuli, which has adopted the United Nations 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, fails to understand how the repression of human rights negatively impacts development. Civil society is a vital stakeholder in the process of sustainable development and by taking steps to restrict the work CSOs, this administration is undermining its own sustainable development – and Vision 2025 – programmes.

Intention to exclude citizen participation

The fact that the new laws were rushed through parliament with a "certificate of urgency", allowing civil society unacceptably little time to review, consult and provide feedback, indicates an intention by government to exclude citizen participation. The whole process contravened the values of justice, equality, participation, and inclusion enshrined in Tanzanian constitution.

However, the Tanzanian experience is not unique in the region, this kind of environment is sadly part of a general trend in many African countries. A growing number of governments on the continent in recent years, have used repressive legislation and policies, especially that relate to the expression of dissent, to stifle and restrict civic space – the space for civil society.

In June 2019, Zimbabwe government released on bail seven activists, after spending close to a month in detention on tramped up political related charges. In Guinea Bissau, for instance, the government allows peaceful protests on weekends but not near a public place or government buildings. The country is currently experiencing massive civil service strikes related to unpaid salaries. Uganda's Public Management Act gives a designated minister the power to decide where protests against such issues may take place.

Many African authorities have shut down and banned media houses for coverage on excesses of their government. In 2018, four Tanzanian newspapers were banned for publishing articles critical of Magufuli. Meanwhile in Cameroon, almost a fifth of the country's population has been adversely affected by state crackdown on the use of English in the media, including social media, schools and other public spaces.

Journalists continue to be detained without trial in Egypt and Sudan. In April, the Uganda Communication Commission ordered nine media houses to sack workers for a live broadcast of opposition leaders' political activities of opposition leaders, said to be in contravention of broadcasting standards. Ironically, Uganda has welcomed asylum seekers fleeing countries such as Eritrea, where civic space is closed. In neighbouring country Burundi, state-controlled media is increasingly replacing independent radio stations, most of which were forced to close during a crisis in 2016.

Meanwhile in Zambia, only protests and assemblies supported by the ruling party are allowed and given protection by the police, while other protests are associated with opposition parties and are not allowed to conduct their activities, even under the protection of the constitution.

Much as all these countries are signatories of the African Charter on Human and Peoples Rights and the African Union Declaration of Principles on Freedom of Expression in Africa, most of them in different ways, have restrictive legal frameworks that limit or stifle civic space. These laws are given different names such as Public Order Management Act, Access to Information Act, Media, Computer Misuse Act, and Anti-Terrorism Act, but they all used to the same effect. The terms of many pieces of legislation are sufficiently broad to be applied to democratic expressions of dissent.

Channels for consultation crucial

The UN Special rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association, Clemet Voule, has continuously urged African leaders to establish meaningful partnership with civic actors and provide a conducive environment – legally, politically, economically and socially – that will enhance implementation of SDGs in Africa.  

In light of this, states must create channels for extensive consultations and provide adequate opportunities for all citizens, including civil society, to engage with and understand the policies that affect their live and more so that have direct bearing on achieving sustainable development on the continent.

In countries such as Tanzania, civil society must continue to engage and work with their respective governments, regional mechanisms, and international spaces, to highlight and advocate for a free and conducive civic space that promotes an environment for sustainable development; while the state must respect their national, regional and international obligations to respect, protect and fulfil human rights.

- Paul Mulindwa is an advocacy and campaigns officer with CIVICUS, a global alliance of civil society organisations.

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