Maxence Melo in conversation with Roncliffe Odit
Maxence Melo, Tanzanian journalist and founder of JamiiForums, the country’s most popular online forum, has been in the dock 152 times in the past three years. That is almost equivalent to one court session per week. It is the price he pays for creating and maintaining what he describes as a platform for free speech. And that’s not all. His ability to travel has been restricted since 2016. He is not allowed to go beyond the boundaries of Dar es Salaam City without written permission.
“Any government would love to control the media; any government would love to control dissenting voices. As a journalist, you need to understand the space you are working in and the legal landscape,” he tells Roncliffe Odit in an interview.
Watch his interview with Roncliffe Odit here as they speak about press freedom, COVID-19, and corruption in East Africa.
Press freedom in Tanzania
Press freedom has deteriorated steadily in Tanzania since 2014, when the country enacted the Cybercrimes Act. According to Maxence, a number of journalists are facing criminal charges while some have gone missing. “Journalists are now unable to write stories critical of the government. Nowadays the mainstream media is simply surviving if I may say. So, we do not have any investigative paper in the country and no mainstream media that can produce investigative pieces as we speak,” he adds.
Maxence has been running JamiiForums for close to two decades now, despite these challenges. In 2019 he was named winner of the International Press Freedom Award. But why does it matter so much to him to make such a sacrifice, Roncliffe asked. “At one point in 2016 I almost gave up. But I asked myself – If I give up who will (do it)?” he said, adding that JamiiForums is a pioneer in a movement to reclaim the space for freedom of expression especially online and that if they do not take the leadership at a time when the country does not have any law protecting that space, then “we are doomed.”
The threats to free speech in Tanzania have especially been exposed in this period of the COVID-19 pandemic, the government has not provided data on infections and mortalities since 29 April, when 480 confirmed cases and 16 deaths were reported. Neither has the media, Maxence terms it an impossibility. “The statistics Act in Tanzania prohibits the publishing of unofficial data. So, no journalist can do such a thing. There are no such stories,” he says.
But with a good understanding of the space in which the media operates and the legal landscape, journalists can navigate these difficulties and still be able to inform their audiences and take authorities to account according to Maxence. “It is not easy but it can be done. At JamiiForums we have a dedicated legal team that advises on the different stories and the right wordings to bring out certain issues without being on the wrong side of the law.”