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Tanzania

Tanzanian authorities 'trying to suppress' anonymous whistle-blowing website

Maxence Melo, co-founder of Jamii Forums, in a post on 23 April 2016.
Maxence Melo, co-founder of Jamii Forums, in a post on 23 April 2016. via Facebook.com

Police in Tanzania have arrested the co-founder of popular whistle-blowing website Jamii Forums and are demanding that he reveal the identities of its users. Maxence Melo was arrested on Tuesday and is likely to be charged with obstructing a police investigation, according to an organisation that is providing him with legal representation.

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“The police have asked him several times to reveal the particulars, the identities of the online users,” Onesmo Olengurumwa, National Coordinator, Tanzania Human Rights Defenders Coalition, told RFI. “But he has been responding that he hasn’t the capacity of actually identifying the particulars, the names of the online users.”

Jamii Forums has become a “safe place” for bloggers, journalists and insiders to talk freely and share information often concerning the workings of government. The website’s slogan reads, “the home of great thinkers – where we dare to talk openly”.

The system of registration on Jamii Forums enables users to use their real name and details or remain anonymous. “He [Melo] has no way to get those particulars, when people register themselves they have that option of giving their particulars or hiding their identities,” says Olengurumwa.

The website domain name is registered in the US, according to a domain name lookup search. Jamii Forums’ privacy policy says it does not log users’ IP address or share personal information except in cases where it must comply with the law, investigations into identified serious crimes or to identify people violating the law.

Authorities will have a hard time shutting down Jamii Forums, according to Olengurumwa. “Even last year during elections, it was shut down for some hours, but later on we brought it back, so it is well protected because even the servers are not in the country,” he says. It is not clear where Jamii Forums’ servers are located, according to several trace route searches carried out by RFI.

Posts on Jamii Forums are predominately in Swahili, the site is said to have some 6,000 users
Posts on Jamii Forums are predominately in Swahili, the site is said to have some 6,000 users

Jamii Forums has frequently been the source of stories involving alleged corruption, according to reports, and helped expose a corrupt energy deal which was subsequently picked up by the mainstream Tanzanian media.

“Some of the stories going on in the mainstream media like newspapers, television stations or radio stations in Tanzania originated from Jamii Forums,” Neville Meena, Secretary General, Tanzania Editors Forum, told RFI.

“By suppressing Jamii Forums that means you are suppressing the emergence of the new inside sources, what’s going on in government circles and so on and so forth,” adds Meena.

Posts on Jamii Forums in reaction to Melo’s arrest described him as a “hero” and some users called for a fund to be set up to help with his legal defence.

Tanzania enacted a Cyber Crimes Act last year which press freedom advocates describe as part of an effort to limit media freedom. Press freedom advocates say the law has already led to 10 people having being charged for “insulting” President John Magufuli on the popular WhatsApp messaging platform.

"The Tanzanian government would do better to investigate allegations of corruption, rather than pressuring a website to violate its users' trust and privacy," the Committee to Protect Journalists wrote in a post on Wednesday about Melo’s arrest.

“Sometimes the government feels that maybe it’s humiliated by some of the acts being revealed in that forum,” says Meena. “The government must be unhappy about what’s going on, on that forum.”

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