The Future of Democracy and Freedom in Tanzania Is at Stake

The ruling party, the Chama Cha Mapindizi (CCM), has enacted a cluster of laws to clamp down on freedom of the media that will put a country once admired for its transparency and openness - and a significant development partner of the West - into the same league as other dictatorships on the continent.

The Media Services Bill will bar all but officially licensed journalists and media houses from operating, create a "media council" to control publications down to small newsletters and blogger sites, and impose stiff penalties such as the banning of newspapers.

The Cybercrimes Act will outlaw online publication of what the government deems "misleading, deceptive or false" information, and grant police the power to search the homes of suspected violators, seize their computers and demand their data from online service providers. It will be an offence to send an email or other electronic communication without solicitation.

The Statistics Act outlaws the publication of statistics deemed by the government to be false, an offence punishable by a $6,000 fine or a three-year prison sentence. A researcher or journalist can go to jail for publishing data that the government does not agree with.

The laws ostensibly set out to confront concerns such as child pornography and hate speech but instead strangle freedom of speech both on traditional and social media.

The laws have either passed Parliament or are being fast tracked through. President Jaya Kikwete has announced that he will assent to all, though he has not yet signed them into law.

There is only one motive that explains the breadth of these measures and the speed with which they have been rushed into law: Tanzania is to hold national elections in October this year.

Cumulatively, the new laws could silence criticism of poor governance and stifle what has been a feature of media reporting in recent years: investigations and exposes of corruption in government.

By setting stiff penalties for breaking the law, the government is assembling a series of traps that will force the opposition to choose between silence and jail.

The CCM has effectively ruled Tanzania since independence in 1961, and won every election since the country became a multiparty democracy in 1992. But this year, it is faces the prospect for the first time that it could be beaten, by an opposition movement spearheaded by my party, the Chama Cha Demokrasia na Maendeleo (Chadema).

Millions of Tanzanians are tired of endemic corruption and paralysis and are eager for change. Tanzania has become one of the largest recipients of aid in Africa, yet we have the resources and opportunities to become one of the economic powerhouses of the continent.

The government is determined to hold onto power by all means, and we see the crackdown on the media and free speech as part of a broader attack on democracy.

As our support has grown, our members have been violently attacked - several have been killed and hundreds more jailed. Almost a dozen Chadema members face politically motivated charges in court. I personally narrowly escaped with my life when a hand-grenade thrown at me during one of our rallies killed four people.

Why should this matter to people in the US?

Tanzania is first among the West's development partners in Africa. From the US government alone, it is one of the leading beneficiaries of aid from the Millennium Challenge Corporation, Feed the Future, the President's Emergency Plan for Aids Relief and Obama's signature Africa initiative, Power Africa.

Many Americans know Tanzania as a land of great beauty and one of the world's most splendid wildlife refuges. It is the home of the Serengeti Plains, Ngorongoro Crater, the Olduvai Gorge and Mount Kilimanjaro.

And yet an NGO, the Environmental Investigative Agency, says more elephants are killed for their ivory in Tanzania than in any other country, as a consequence of corruption and criminality.

The British television station, ITN, published statistics recently that elephant numbers in the Ruaha-Rungwa ecosystem had fallen by 60 %, from 20,000 to 8,200. National Geographic has pointed out that mere publication of these facts will soon be a criminal act. Under the cloak of censorship, the slaughter will continue.

The international community does have leverage and bears some responsibility if nothing is done. President Kikwete appeared to acknowledge this when, addressing the opening of the US-sponsored Open Government Initiative in Tanzania recently, he claimed to be open to hearing objections to the legislation and to be willing to fix them - after they have been signed into law.

We have a better solution: the international community should insist that he should not sign these laws. He should send them back to Parliament so that all measures designed to crack down on the media or stifle freedom of expression can be expunged.

This is not just about these laws, bad as they are. This is about ensuring that there is a level playing field in the election so that the will of the people can prevail. Nothing less than the future of democracy and freedom in Tanzania is at stake.

Freeman Aikaeli Mbowe is the chairman of Chama cha Demokrasia na Maendeleo (CHADEMA - Party for Democracy and Development) and the leader of the opposition in Tanzania's Parliament. Mbowe was elected to the National Assembly in 2000 representing the Hai Constituency in Kilimanjaro Region.