Tanzanian journalist Maxence Melo Mubyazi is one of five recipients of the 2019 International Press Freedom Award, the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) announced on Tuesday.
.@JamiiForums promotes public transparency and has been persecuted by the government. Co-founder @macdemelo has appeared in court over 100 times in the last 3 years, charged under laws used to limit criticism of the state.
— CPJ Africa (@CPJAfrica) July 16, 2019
“Giving this award to Melo also shines a light on the worrying trend in sub-Saharan Africa of governments using overly broad cybercrime laws to crack down on free speech online,” the CJP said.
Melo is the owner and co-founder of JamiiForums — sometimes nicknamed the “Swahili Wikileaks” — a website founded in 2006 that hosts frank online debates about politics, corruption and governance, and which has evolved into both a source of breaking news and a secure whistleblowing platform.
In a statement, Jamii Forums said: “[Melo] has been at the forefront of fighting for and protection of online freedom of expression and digital privacy in Tanzania. He has used JamiiForums.com to provide a secure, credible and … most reliable … whistle-blowing platform in Tanzania. [Melo] has played an enormous role in making JamiiForums [a] platform to revolutionise online and mainstream media through freedom of expression, pushing for political accountability, transparency and good governance.”
Melo and JamiiForums have both been harassed and persecuted by the Tanzanian government. According to the CPJ, Melo appeared in court at least 81 times in 2017 alone to defend his work. In this profile by Abdi Latif Dahir in Quartz, it was revealed that Melo has been accused of obstructing justice, operating an unregistered website, and refusing to reveal the identities of users who shared sensitive information.
Melo’s award comes against the backdrop of an increased threat to press freedom and freedom of expression in Tanzania, where the government has enacted harsh laws to regulate both traditional media and digital platforms (including the notorious 2018 Electronic and Postal Communications Act, which requires all bloggers to pay a $900 registration fee for the privilege of being able to post content online).
Last week, in an interview with the BBC, Tanzania’s foreign minister, Paramagamba Kabudi, appeared to let slip that investigative journalist Azory Gwanda had died. Gwanda disappeared under suspicious circumstances in 2017 after investigating a series of what appeared to be extrajudicial killings in the Rufiji area. The foreign minister later walked back his comments, saying that the government had no confirmation on whether Gwanda was alive or not.
This year’s other International Press Freedom Award winners were: Patrícia Campos Mello, a Brazilian reporter and columnist who was threatened and doxxed when she investigated how supporters of Jair Bolsanaro’s presidential campaign were sponsoring bulk message broadcasts on WhatsApp; Neha Dixit, a freelance journalist in India, who faced legal and physical threats, as well as online harassment, for reporting on alleged wrongdoing by rightwing nationalist groups; and Lucía Pineda Ubau and Miguel Mora, from Nicaragua’s 100% Noticias, who were imprisoned in December 2018 for their coverage of ongoing protests in the country.