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A major turning point in freedom of speech and freedom of information came last week following another amendment to the Tanzanian Statistics Act, which now no longer criminalizes the publishing of independent statistical information.
The Statistics Act was passed in 2015 and criminalized the publication of “false official statics” or disseminating data that resulted in a “distortion of facts”, Oryem Nyeko, a Human Rights Watch researcher, reports.
“In 2017, police arrested opposition politician Zitto Kabwe for violating the law for remarks he made about Tanzania’s economic growth,” Nyeko writes. Though, Nyeko added that “He was never charged and eventually released”.
Following this, another amendment to Tanzania’s Statistics Act came last year (2018) through the Written Laws Act, which prevented any distortion or discrediting of the data collected and provided by the National Bureau of Statistics (NBS). According to The Citizen, the amendment also blocked individuals and institutions from conducting their own survey polls, as well as other forms of research and disseminating the information collected to the public without approval of the NBS.
The penalty for violation of the amended law was a “$6,000 fine or a three-year prison sentence”, the Citizen reports. This effectively gave the state a monopoly on statistical data, as well as free reign to potentially manipulate figures without any means of recourse for private citizens and institutions or otherwise non-governmental organizations (NGOs) to disprove the state’s figures should this happen.
For this reason, the decision sparked harsh criticism and condemnation from stakeholders, the public, and even the World Bank, who withheld a $50 million grant for government statistics research over concerns of freedom of speech.
On October 2nd, 2018, the World Bank released this statement on the matter:
The World Bank is deeply concerned about the recent amendments to Tanzania’s 2015 Statistics Act, which are out of line with international standards such as the UN Fundamental Principles of Official Statistics and the African Charter on Statistics. We have shared our concerns with the Tanzanian authorities that the amendments, if implemented, could have serious impacts on the generation and use of official and non-official statistics, which are a vital foundation for the country’s development.
“The pressure seems to have worked,” Nyeko writes. However, he goes on to say that he is still concerned about eight bills that were proposed this year which would have run contrary to this most recent decision, reinforcing, rather than diminishing, the anti-freedom aspects of the law.
Every person now has the right to collect and publish statistics and criminal liability has been removed from the law – all of this in a country with a reputation for suppressing the press.