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Tanzanian journalist wins International Press Freedom Award


Maxence Melo has been named as one of the winners of the International Press Freedom Awards. Pic: Jamii

The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) has named Tanzanian online reporter Maxence Melo Mubyazi as one of the winners of the International Press Freedom Award winners for 2019.

Melo, who is the only African on the list of winners, is the co-founder and managing director of Jamii Forums, also known as Swahili WikiLeaks, an online discussion site popular in West and Central Africa and source of breaking news. The forum also offers a secure whistleblowing platform, promoting accountability and transparency in the region.

CPJ's Advocacy Director, Courtney Radsch, has hailed Melo as courageous in the face of adversity. "Maxence Melo has for years faced a myriad of threats and challenges from government, and his struggle to continue working in Tanzania is symptomatic of a broad deterioration of press freedom in the country." This, says Radsch, is emblematic of the courage the International Press Freedom Awards recognises.

In an interview after his award announcement, Melo expressed his happiness and gratitude that his team was being recognised for their work, despite continued pressures faced since the mid-2000s. "It’s something encouraging and I believe among hundreds of thousands of journalists being among the winners for the year 2019 it’s something huge,” he said.

In a statement released by Jamii Forums, the founder is described as being at the forefront of the fight for press freedom, online freedom and digital privacy in Tanzania. "He has used JamiiForums.com to provide a secure, credible and most reliable whistleblowing platform in Tanzania," the statement reads. "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.”

Described as a champion for online freedom, Melo has been accused by authorities of a number of transgressions, including terrorism. Most recently he has been charged under Tanzania's restrictive Cybercrimes Act. In 2017 alone, he appeared in court 81 times. Despite this, he continues to fight to clear his name, and to hold power to account. CPJ has repeatedly called on the Tanzanian government to cease its harassment of Melo and Jamii Forums.

According to CPJ’s Radsch, Tanzania remains a country of deep concern to the organisation, with conditions for media practitioners continuing to deteriorate drastically under the rule of President John Magufuli. "The constant legal intimidation and attacks against Melo and Jamii Forums, including the restrictive 2016 Cybercrimes Act and 2018 online content regulations, are symptomatic of just how closed the space for civil society and media has become," said Radsch.

CPJ says restrictive legislations are being used in many African countries to stifle voices who speak out against government and authority, with retaliation against media outlets believed to be state-opposed ranging from closure and blackouts to physical violence directed against staff. In Tanzania, at least one freelance journalist, Azory Gwanda, has been missing since November 2017.

According to the press freedom organisation, several sources have confirmed that Gwanda was last seen in the presence of a group of men believed to be security agents. Despite numerous calls from the organisation to account for the whereabouts of the missing reporter, the government remains mum on his location and condition.

On April 4 2019 CPJ launched their #WhereisAzory campaign to mark 500 days since his disappearance and draw awareness to his case. Last week, however, the Tanzanian Minister of Foreign Affairs, Palamagamba Kabudi, told the BBC that Azory was dead, before later backtracking on these comments.

With this award, CPJ hopes to shine a light on the worrying trend in sub-Saharan Africa that sees governments using overly broad cybercrime laws to suppress freedom of speech online.

According to Joel Simon, the executive director of CPJ, the award winners represent the very best of journalism. "These are people who have put their lives and liberty on the line to bring us the news. While we celebrate their courage, we lament that it is required," he said. "The sad reality is that around the world independent journalism is threatened by populist authoritarians who disdain and disparage the work of the independent press. This is true in the countries represented by our honourees and many others."

A list of the 2019 International Press Freedom Awards. Pic: CPJ

Other journalists who will be honoured at the prestigious award ceremony, held in New York on November 21, 2019, are Brazilian reporter and columnist Patrícia Campos Mello, investigative reporter from India Neha Dixit, and Nicaraguan broadcasters Lucía Pineda Ubau and Miguel Mora. According to CPJ, these journalists have faced online harassment, physical and legal threats and imprisonment amid the erosion of press freedom globally - all in pursuit of the news. CPJ has also announced that it will be honouring Zaffar Abbas, the editor of Pakistan's Dawn newspaper, with the Gwen Ifill Press Freedom Award. With decades of experience as a reporter, he has headed up the paper since 2010 and under his leadership the publication and its employees have frequently come under pressure from the government.

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