Samia challenged to free journalists, activists

AFRICAN civil societies actors from Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania have pleaded with President Samia Suluhu Hassan to release all political prisoners, human right activists, journalists incarcerated by the previous regime.

The umbrella of East African human rights group from three countries made the appeal yesterday during President Samia’s two-day state visit in Kenya.

“We urge President Samia as a mother and our human rights colleague to release all political prisoners, journalists and activists who are still languishing in prisons,” said the group in a joint statement made to the public from Nairobi, Kenya.

The group said more than 100 prisoners of such nature are still behind bars, and others are having continued court cases that were motivated by politics and different opinions from that of President John Magufuli, Samia’s predecessor. Magufuli died on March 17, 2021.

In Tanzania, apart from journalists and editors having long standing court cases, there are several activists who are still held in prison for trumped up charges.

“Over the past six years, the late President Magufuli oversaw abusive laws and policies that seriously undermined human rights in Tanzania,” said Otsieno Namwaya, East Africa director at Human Rights Watch.

He said the new government, under President Samia now has a chance for a fresh start by ending problematic past practices.

Since Magufuli first took office in 2015, the authorities had increasingly cracked down on the media and civil society groups by passing and enforcing restrictive laws and threatening to withdraw the registration of organizations critical of the government. The government also placed restrictions on the political opposition and gave the registrar of political parties wide discretionary powers, including to withdraw registration from parties.

In 2017, Magufuli banned pregnant girls and teenage mothers from attending school and prohibited family planning. This was followed by crackdowns on individuals and organizations seen as critical of these policies. The authorities censored and suspended newspapers and radio stations for publishing or airing material critical of Magufuli’s presidency.

The government also arbitrarily arrested – and in some cases brought harassing prosecutions against – journalists, activists, and opposition politicians perceived to be government critics.

Magufuli declared Tanzania free of Covid-19 in late May 2020, after which the authorities imposed new restrictions on media outlets because of their reporting on Covid-19. They fined and suspended licenses of media companies and summoned media professionals over coverage of the pandemic.