Rule of law: Tanzania faces funding furore over human rights violations

Ruth Green, IBA Multimedia JournalistFriday 20 March 2020

The latest furore over multilateral funding to Tanzania has fuelled renewed concerns about the country’s dismal human rights record.

In January, opposition political leaders and civil society groups in Tanzania urged the World Bank to withdraw a $500m loan to the country until ‘checks and balances’, including a free press, free and fair elections, and the reinstatement of the Controller and Auditor General, had been restored.

The loan, which was earmarked to fund a local education project, has proved particularly contentious because of the government’s ongoing refusal to reverse a discriminatory law that subjects girls to compulsory pregnancy tests and expels them from state schools when they become pregnant. Local and international human rights organisations have issued an official complaint against the law to the African Committee of Experts on the Rights and Welfare of the Child.

The World Bank is Tanzania’s largest external lender and was already forced to withdraw a $300m loan to the country in 2018 due to concerns over the controversial education policy. In September 2019, the Bank approved $450m in financing to support Tanzania’s ambitious poverty reduction programme in recognition of the government’s efforts to amend legislation ‘in line with international practice, as well as the Government’s commitment to facilitate all girls to complete their education.’ A spokesperson for the Bank confirmed to Global Insight that the Board of Executive Directors agreed in late January to ‘allow for more time to discuss elements of the project’ before approving the education loan.

It sends an unequivocal message to other African Union members who may be inclined to violate human rights that the world will not watch as they do so

Sternford Moyo
Former President of the Law Society of Zimbabwe

Sternford Moyo, former President of the Law Society of Zimbabwe and a member of the IBA African Regional Forum Advisory Board, says the law amounts to ‘gender discrimination’ and violates the human rights of Tanzanian women and girls. He believes moves like these by multilateral lenders are an important step in the global fight for accountability. ‘The withdrawal and suspension of financial support in the form of grants and loans by Western nations and the World Bank is a practical manifestation of the responsibility to protect,’ he says. ‘It significantly enhances and complements the activities of domestic human rights activists in Tanzania. Furthermore, it sends an unequivocal message to other African Union members who may be inclined to violate human rights that the world will not watch as they do so.’

Other donors have threatened to cut off financial aid over the country’s deteriorating human rights situation. In November 2018, Denmark, one of Tanzania’s biggest donors, withheld $10m over concerns of increasingly homophobic rhetoric and policies towards lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) people. The European Union, the country’s biggest development partner, also launched a review of its policies towards the country in 2018 in light of human rights and rule of law concerns.

The continued restrictions on media freedom and civic space in the country also continue to attract criticism, says Alinda Vermeer, Acting Chief Executive Officer at the London-based Media Legal Defence Initiative (MLDI). ‘I think the situation in Tanzania is particularly bad in East Africa,’ she says. ‘You see a lot of draconian media legislation and the closure of outlets, making it very difficult for online platforms to do their work. I don’t see that improving immediately. It’s a pretty worrying situation.’

Like a number of other African countries, defamation is still a criminal offence in Tanzania and in 2018 the country approved a law that further gagged online speech. ‘When you look at countries like Tanzania, all bloggers must now get licences to blog,’ says Catherine Anite, a human rights lawyer and Founding Director of the Freedom of Expression Hub in Uganda. ‘All journalists who have an online presence must pay and get licences every year. And if you don't do that, there's a penalty of up to $900 and a jail sentence, so we can see the trend for online speeches is quite negative.’

Above: Catherine Anite speaks exclusively to the IBA

One glimmer of hope came last year when the East African Court of Justice (EACJ) ruled that 16 provisions of Tanzania’s Media Services Act 2016 restricted press freedom and freedom of expression. The regional court, which is based in Arusha, northern Tanzania, called on the government to repeal the Act, arguing that the legislation was incompatible with international human rights standards and best practices.

The MLDI supported the Legal and Human Rights Centre, a Tanzanian non-governmental organisation (NGO), that brought the case. Vermeer hopes the ruling will carry weight. ‘We see that Tanzania is increasingly repressive and the situation for the press is increasingly problematic,’ she says. ‘In that sense the judgment from the EACJ was very timely and very positive. The next step would be to ensure implementation. Often it can involve even more work to implement a judgment than to win the case.’

Although the decision is still subject to appeal, this is one of a number of welcome developments across the continent to protect media freedom. ‘We are seeing that African countries are moving towards a positive trend of decriminalising defamation,’ says Anite, who also sits on the High Level Panel of Legal Experts on Media Freedom, which was set up in 2019 at the request of the UK and Canadian governments to provide advice and recommendations to governments worldwide on abuses to media freedom.

The EACJ judgment follows a 2014 landmark ruling by the African Court on Human and Peoples’ Rights that ordered Burkina Faso to award Burkinabé journalist Lohé Issa Konaté $70,000 in compensation following his year-long detention for charges of criminal defamation. ‘A few months later, we saw Burkina Faso changing its criminal defamation laws and removing prison sanctions,’ says Anite. ‘The next year, we saw Lesotho…going one step ahead of the African courts and decriminalising defamation as a whole. In 2017, Kenya decriminalised defamation using the Konaté decision. Rwanda, which is a country that has been deemed to be suppressive to the media and journalists, decriminalised defamation on its own motion – so this is a great, positive trend.’

Image: OlegD / Shutterstock.com