Author: Yaël Pelegrin (Vienna Master of Human Rights) 


On the 28th of October 2020, Tanzania voted to elect a new president. The outcome was that President John Magufuli was elected for a second term in office. The election looked like it was free and fair on paper, but was it really?

I had been living in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, for almost two months and never had any problems with accessing my social media until about one week before the date of the election. Suddenly, WhatsApp, Facebook, Twitter and Instagram stopped functioning one week prior and two weeks post the election. My Vodacom SIM card and my home WiFi from Zuku did not let these websites and apps work, preventing me from sending and receiving messages through these platforms. There were further reports of a block on bulk text messages and filtering of particular content relating to the presidential election. However, some Tanzanian journalists, such as Maggid Mjengwa, actually spoke against this by stating that there was no proof that the government was censoring the population and argued that they could still access all social media platforms without difficulty, concluding that the information about social media censorship was potentially fake news. From personal experience and from the experience of the people I talked to in Tanzania at the time, this was not fake news, certain social media platforms were definitely being suppressed.

On the surface, this suppression may appear as mildly annoying, but not serious. However, for people who were active participants in this election, such as big supporters or opponents of the running candidates, it greatly affected their ability to express themselves and even to organise peaceful gatherings and protests about the election, which in times of this COVID-19 pandemic, involving limited gatherings, reliance on social media for access to political gatherings and expression is more pronounced. Furthermore, the wider population and outside observers, who may appear as having no personal involvement in the election, had limited access to information about the election and parties’ programmes. Looking from a human rights perspective, I found this censorship to be extremely concerning and certainly a violation of various human rights. It violated the rights to freedom of speech, freedom of assembly and association, and it negatively affected free and fair elections, good governance and good democracy.

Tanzania has ratified the International Convention on Civil and Political Rights, so it is under obligation to protect the freedom of speech, assembly and association. In its constitution, it also guarantees the right to freedom of expression. However, since 2015, the government has stepped up censorship by banning or suspending at least five newspapers for content deemed critical. In November 2017, a human rights activist was also convicted for the “publication of false information” because he termed Zanzibar a colony of mainland Tanzania in a Facebook post. In 2019, Tanzania declared the European Union ambassador persona non grata and expelled him from his post in the country for ‘meddling’ too much in human rights issues.

Global lack of knowledge about these violations

Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International have researched this censorship situation and published reports on it, however, I am concerned by the fact that many people around the world do not know about these violations. On my phone, I have seven news applications: BBC, CNN, France 24, BFMTV, Euronews, Africanews, and Al-Jazeera English, and they all send me daily breaking news headline notifications. During the week of the elections I received headlines about COVID-19 (of course), the upcoming US elections, terrorist activities and its consequences in France, but, only received notifications about the Tanzanian election once the results were out and only Al-Jazeera mentioned that freedom of the media was being supressed. All of the European friends who I talked about this to (these are mostly people who have studied Political science and Human Rights like me) informed me that they had not seen this news in any media.

This suppression of social media was vastly overshadowed, and I believe the best way to hold Tanzania accountable for its human rights violations is to point the finger at them on a global scale, so that they realise what they are doing is not acceptable in our world. Evidence has shown that you need external political pressure from other global actors to be able to have reform on human rights violations. This pressure can come through reporting at the United Nations, through diplomatic action, or even through civil society and public opinion mobilisation. Being aware of violations should be everyone’s concern, that is why I am writing this blog post, to provide an insight to people about what actually happened with the media during this 2020 election in Tanzania and be a whistle-blower for these human rights violations.

About the author:

Yaël Pelegrin is undertaking a Child Rights Governance internship at the NGO Save the Children in Tanzania. Save the Children is an international organization that works towards the aim that every child is protected, survives, and learns. The office in Tanzania works on child rights and child protection issues surrounding proper nutrition for children, good education, ending child marriage, advocating for child rights to be involved in the budgeting process, and advancing child participation.

Her tasks have included:

  • Conducting desk research and analysis to support the Child Rights Thematic Group on the UPR and UNCRC Tanzania civil society reporting of 2021
  • Reviewing and working on Policy Briefs for Budget analysis
  • Supporting the development and articulation of the International Day of the Girl Child celebration event (planning, implementation and follow up report, social media posts, and blog post)
  • Actively being part of the gender task force team that carried out the 2020 Tanzania Gender Equality Self-Assessment, which included compiling a survey for all staff, analyzing the responses and creating a report about them, then conducting Focus Group Discussions about the findings and reporting on that
  • Conducting a review process of the Children Council’s that Save the Children supports
  • Facilitating and reporting on many meetings and trainings, including children consultations, capacity building and MEAL activities

The major challenge she has encountered through her internship is the language barrier as most meetings and trainings with external stakeholders are in Swahili and she does not understand that language.