On June 27, 2019 the Tanzanian parliament passed into law amendments to the Written Laws despite pushback from civil society and human rights defenders. The Written Laws (Miscellaneous Amendments No. 3 of 2019) Bill was made public on June 19 under a “certificate of urgency” to speed up its passage. The discussions concerning the bill began in Parliament on June 21, 2019. Members of civil society raised their concerns over the short notice to provide feedback on the Bill on the morning of June 21. ‘Gbenga Sesan, the Executive Director of Paradigm Initiative, a digital rights organisation working in the region, stated that “Civil Society Organizations (CSOs) urged that if this bill was to be passed it would restrict the right to freedom of expression, assembly and association, placing impermissible restrictions on civil society organisations’ operations’’.
The laws proposed to be amended included the Non-Governmental Organisations Act 2002 (NGOs Act), Society Act, Trustees and Incorporations Act and The Companies Act 2002 among others. These four laws are among the main laws which govern Civil Society Organizations (CSOs) in Tanzania hence raising concerns over whether this was targeted as well as the previous laws to further compress democracy in Tanzania. Tope Ogundipe, Director of Programs Paradigm Initiative, noted, “On June 21 and 22, 2019, some CSOs managed to submit their views before Parliamentary committees in Dodoma. However yesterday the Parliament passed it with only a handful of recommendations being carried forward’’.
The role of Civil Society in fostering development and protecting human rights can not be underestimated. CSO’s have not only provided jobs but have contributed to positive development in various sectors of the economy and wellbeing of the nation. In a statement issued by the Tanzania Human rights defenders coalition (THRDC) along with over 300 other CSO’s, the urgency of passing this bill did not give reasonable time for the public to comprehend the implications of such a law. In attempts to push back, movements such as Change Tanzania published an online petition to collect signatures to lobby the parliament to give more time for comments before passing. However despite collection of over 900 signatures in a span of two days, the petition fell on deaf ears.
There are some positive aspects to the amendments such as the Statistics Act now giving room for due process, as well decriminalizing publishing of statistics data. However, the National Bureau of Statistics still has the final say on the approval of statistics. A post on Instagram by THRDC said that “The government has agreed to put in place procedures for compliance for companies and NGO’s, make amendments to the definition of NGO, Amendments of section 26 which was to give the registrar powers to suspend an NGO Pending determination by the board and monitor and evaluate NGO’s on a quarterly basis’’. Other sections include section 27 and 28 which covers deregistration of NGO’s which fail to comply within the time frame of 2 months. However, it is still unclear which of the specific recommendations from stakeholders have been taken into account when making amendments under the provisions highlighted.
The Executive Director of Paradigm Initiative, ‘Gbenga Sesan, added, “The country has passed a series of oppressive laws in a short span of slightly over a year when they first released the changes to the Electronic and Postal Communications Act (EPOCA) in March last year’’. This was followed by amendments to the Statistical Act and then the Political Parties Act that was passed earlier this year as well, not giving enough time for concrete responses from stakeholders. While the county is approaching elections, the role of civil society at this crucial time is jeopardized.
For the citizens of Tanzania there’s no safe space both offline and online. With content online subject to fall under the Cybercrime Act or seen as a violation of EPOCA there’s no room to express views. With the coming in of such new laws Civil society that have been working towards seeking redress and legal strategies to protect human rights including digital rights are left exposed.The role CSO’s have of building communities of trust both offline and online and keeping citizens engaged in matters of direct concern via media and other means will also be challenged. The possibility of some NGOs failing to comply with new laws will make the struggle to protect civic spaces an even more challenging battle.
This law that was just passed will join the other laws such as the EPOCA, Political Parties Act and Cybercrime Act that have established clear boundaries and leave little room to hold the government accountable and to criticize it. Tope Ogundipe, Director of Programs at Paradigm Initiative continued, “We urge that proactive measures be taken to protect the existence of vibrant civil societies that play a role in creating peaceful and equal societies. We implore the government of Tanzania to ensure the stability and openness of democratic and civic spaces in Tanzania by respecting and protecting the role of civil society as a key player in the promotion of democratic ideals”.