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On Magufuli's desk: A bill that restricts freedoms

June 28, 2019

Tanzania has steamrolled draft amended laws through parliament despite grave warnings at home and abroad that they will further curtail the rights of citizens of the East African country.

A poster of Tanzania's president John Magufuli
Image: Getty Images/AFP/D. Hayduk

The bill awaiting signature brings changes to eight provisions of the law that governs areas such as the non-governmental sector, companies, the dissemination of statistics and the production of films and stage plays.

The Written Laws Bill cleared the National Assembly on 27 June 2019, nine days after it was made public. It now awaits the signature of President John Magufuli, seen by some as a leader with an authoritarian impulse.

Read more: Opinion: Tanzania’s Magufuli, a reformist or dictator?

Bill 'aims to kill civil society'

The government ignored public criticism of the swift passage of the bill, saying the amendments were urgently required to plug a gap in legislation used to monitor companies and civil society organizations.

Opposition lawmakers, human rights groups, media watchdogs, non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and legal experts argued that it would introduce unjust restrictions on citizens of Tanzania.

"The problem is this bill aims to kill civil society organizations," Anna Henga, the executive director of the Legal and Human Rights Center (LHRC), told DW. "Organizations like the LHRC will be banned because it will no longer comply with the law. Secondly, the freedom of rights groups will be restricted through legislation."

Government watchdogs affected

The amended NGO Act will give the government wide powers over civil society groups, including the right to evaluate, investigate their operations and suspend them.

"You have to keep renewing your contract after 10 years. This is not good for institutional organizations," Jebra Kambole, a legal expert based in Dar es Salaam told DW. "The registrar can refuse to register some institutions like churches, mosques, or companies without giving any valid reason."

Commenting on the bill, Magufuli critic and lawmaker John Heche noted the key role non-governmental organizations play in monitoring the government. "For example, organizations like the LHRC that reveals atrocities committed by security organs,”" Heche told DW. "You bring these laws, you want to control freedom of expression."

The new regulations would discourage companies from investing in Tanzania, he warned.

Public 'didn't see this coming'

In changing the Statistics Act, the government introduces new procedures for the publication of non-official statistical information, which makes the publication of information that distorts, discredits or contradicts official statistics an offence. International human rights watchdog Amnesty International interprets the amendment as an attempt by the government to monopolize national data and "criminalize access to information."

New regulations under the amended Films and Stage Plays Act will mean that foreign producers of films, documentaries or advertisements who undertake projects within Tanzania will be required to present raw footage to the government for approval. 

DW asked residents in Dar es Salaam how they viewed the proposed laws. Some said they were caught by surprise. "Well as a normal citizen, I think we didn't see this coming, simply because we were not involved in any way," one resident said. 

"Our local members of parliament didn't tell us about amendments. We just saw them through the media."

Will NGOs have to pay up again?

University of Dar es Salaam student Frank Ngobile sees both sides of the argument. "On my side, I think there is a move to control NGOs and I think it will be a challenging moment but on the other side it's a move aimed at effectively helping NGOs and strengthening them."

"It was not okay for the government to use the law to ban people from releasing or from acknowledging some of the statistics which go against the government statistics."

Another resident scoffed at the changes to the NGO Act saying they were "quite interesting." 

"I'm on one of these non-profit organizations and we only registered a month or two ago. So my question is: now that the government says all of the community-based organizations should register again, will we pay the same amount as we paid during the registration?"

Tanzanian online activist Maria Sarungi Tsehai

Recourse to the law

Amnesty said that introducing a rule that grassroots groups have to publish audited annual financial reports in mainstream media imposes a cost burden that could bankrupt the smallest among them.

"Let's believe that the government is doing this with the interest of the people at heart,” another resident told DW.

President Magufuli is expected to face some pressure to return the bill to Parliament for wide consultation. In the event that he declines to do so and prompts a major public groundswell, there is recourse to the law, says the advocate Jebra Kambole.

"If the president signs it, we still have a number of actions we can take. Our constitution gives us the right to go to court to see if it's against the law. We also have the option of going to the East African Court of Justice, if it's against East African laws that give us the right to expression, which is important for any democracy."

Fredrick Nwaka (Dar es Salaam) and Sudi Mnette contributed to this article.