Global Voices

#FreeMaxenceMelo: Authorities Charge Tanzanian Whistleblowing Website Owner Under Cybercrimes Law

"Mentioning 'Tanzania' and 'democracy' in the same sentence amounts to subjecting the term 'democracy' to ridicule."
Jamii Forums screenshot and photo of Maxence Melo, widely shared on Twitter.

Jamii Forums screenshot and photo of Maxence Melo, widely shared on Twitter.

Maxence Melo, co-founder of Tanzanian whistleblowing and discussion site Jamii Forums was arrested in Dar Es Salaam, Tanzania on December 13, for refusing police requests for forum members’ personal data. The offices of Jamii Forums were raided by police on December 14, and multiple other staff were questioned.

The charges against Melo fall under Tanzania's relatively new and controversial Cybercrimes Law, which has been used to prosecute numerous social media users since its approval in 2015.

Jamii Forums, which was established in 2006 by Maxence Melo and Mike Mushi, is one of the most popular sites in East Africa. Jamii (Swahili for “community”) Forums is known for intense political discussions and revelations of corruption that take place on its comment and discussion threads, in a style similar to that of Reddit. Melo has periodically faced challenges from state and federal authorities since the early days of Jamii Forums, where various corruption allegations against government officials and ruling party members have surfaced.

One of Melo's six lawyers, Benedict Ishabakaki, says his arrest and detention follow a High Court case, brought by Melo, that asks the court to review sections of Tanzania's 2015 Cybercrimes Law that allow extensive powers of law enforcement officers to search and seize electronic devices and computer systems. Beyond declining to disclose user data that authorities have requested under the Cybercrimes Law, Melo argues that they are unconstitutional and that the Cybercrimes Law undercuts freedom of expression in Tanzania. He and his staff have also asserted that Jamii Forums store user data in an encrypted format, on servers located outside the country.

After spending 3 nights in detention, Melo was taken to Kisutu Magistrate Court on the morning of December 16. He has been charged with obstructing investigation contrary to section 22(2) of the Cybercrimes Act, 2015 and management of a domain not registered in Tanzania, contrary to section 79(c) of the Electronic and Postal Communications Act, 2010. He is represented by a team of six prominent lawyers in the country.

Melo was later taken to Keko Prison in Dar Es Salaam. He will appear in court on Monday.

Free speech activists, multiple media and human rights organisations have all come out in support of Melo, including the Collaboration on International ICT Policy for East and Southern Africa, the Committee to Protect Journalists, Legal and Human Right Centre, Tanzania Editors Forum and Tanzania Human Right Defenders Coalition.

Twitter users in Tanzania and outside are voicing their opposition to his arrest using the hashtag #FreeMaxenceMelo.

Defending the site, Tanzanian communications expert, Maria Sarungi Tsehai, said:

Another user wondered why in other jurisdictions such as the US refusal to reveal users’ data does not lead to arrest. He cited the case of the Federal Bureau of Investigation and technology company Apple:

Pato tweeted:

Semkae, Policy Forum coordinator, wrote in Swahili:

A system in which criminals walk freely and those following the law are jailed creates a bad image for the country.

Kim Mhando noted:

It's ironic, a few days after celebrating our independence, our government curtails the freedom of its citizens. It's a shame.

Abdul Noor, an advocate of good governance in Tanzania wrote:

Maria Sarungi Tsehai wondered:

Up to now we don't know who or which group wants the data and identity of Jamii Forums users…who are they?

Tanzania's parliament passed a Cybercrime law on April 1, 2015, to address cybercrime issues such as child pornography, cyberbullying, online impersonation, electronic production of racist and xenophobic content, spam, illegal interception of communications, and the publication of false information.

The bill received widespread opposition from politicians, social media practitioners, donors and human rights activists. Former president Jakaya Kikwete signed it into law in May 2015.

Opponents of the Cybercrime Act argue that the law gives too much power — without meaningful oversight — to police, bestowing upon them the ability to search the homes of suspected violators of the law, seize their electronic hardware, and demand their data from online service providers. Melo's case will unquestionably put these critiques to the test.

Originally published in Global Voices.

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