Defender of the month: Vicky Ntetema

Vicky Ntetema is a former journalist and human rights defenders (HRDs) from Tanzania whose work spans more than two decades. In light of her home country’s recent crackdown on civic space, she has begun focusing her efforts towards full-time advocacy, bringing greater attention to human rights abuses and attacks against civil society.

“Tanzania is not peaceful anymore,” she laments. “Where is our independence? Where is our space?”

Ntetema began working as the Tanzania Bureau Chief for the BBC World Service in the early 2000s, working on stories related to current events, politics, and human rights. She says while the government under former Presidents Mkapa and Kikwete were more tolerant of critical views, several topics were off limits, such as HIV/AIDS, the sale expired antiretroviral drugs, the lack of education in rural areas, and the political situation in Zanzibar.

Trouble first came when Ntetema began investigating the murder of people with albinism in Tanzania, who are sometimes hunted by traditional healers claiming that concoctions made from their bodies can bring wealth and luck. As a result of her investigations into these powerful cross-border smuggling networks, threats were made against her life, forcing her to flee the country twice and require round-the-clock security.

In response, Ntetema left the BBC in 2010 and for many years led the Dar es Salaam office of Under the Same Sun (UTSS) an international civil society organisation that seeks to end the discrimination and violence against persons with albinism through advocacy and education.

“When President Magufuli came to power everything changed,” she says. “We expected with the new government that things would be better. Far from it, they have gotten much worse.”

In July 2017, the government attempted to deregister UTSS after the group quoted from a third-party African Union source which compared an albinism centre to a detention centre. This followed a trend in which the government was increasingly intolerant of critical views or any information that contradicted its own official statistics or economic development narratives.

“You know that these are facts, but if you don’t apologize when they ask, they shut you down,” Ntetema says regarding the suppression of independent information.

The controversy forced her to step down as the head of UTSS, leading her to focus her efforts fully towards advocacy in order to bring greater attention to Tanzania’s massive crackdown on HRDs and civil society as a whole. She also notes that the Magufuli government has also increasingly publically threatened media outlets who refuse to comply with the new agenda, creating a culture of impunity where human rights abuses often go unpunished.

“Now we see that even politicians who are very vocal are being attacked. We see quite a few people being killed or injured in police custody.”

Ntetema says that the overall squeezing of civic space means that communities no longer have adequate platforms to voice grievances, which may ultimately destabilise Tanzanian society. While the government has increasingly fragmented civil society organisations in order to assert control, she hopes that groups can come together to share common goals and counter these worrying trends.

“President cannot tolerate criticism, even if it is positive,” she says. “This is an era where we have control freaks in power, and this is very dangerous. We need to come together before it is too late.”

See more HRDs of the Month

Human Rights Defender of the Month: Onyango Owor

In March 2020, Uganda’s Constitutional Court nullified the Public Order Management Act, 2013, a law that made arbitrary restrictions on freedom of assembly possible. One of the people behind the successful petition of POMA is Onyango Owor, a Ugandan lawyer with 15 years of experience in representing human rights defenders.

Human Rights Defender of the Month: Kadar Abdi Ibrahim

Kadar Abdi Ibrahim is an outspoken human rights activist and journalist from Djibouti – a country where journalists are frequently harassed, subjected to government-orchestrated intimidation and reprisals, and prevented from pursuing their work independently. Yet, Kadar continues to use his voice and pen as tools to promote justice.

Human Rights Defender of the Month: Aluel Atem

Aluel Atem is an ambitious woman activist from South Sudan who plays a vital role in the promotion of women’s rights in the country. However, life as an outspoken feminist in a patriarchal country is not a walk in the park. “It’s not only about being a female, but a young female. You get undermined for being a woman in all-man spaces, and for being young in older spaces,” Aluel explains.

Human Rights Defender of the Month: Faiza Abdi Mohamed

The Somali activist Faiza Abdi Mohamed has promoted human rights in her home country for a decade, which has made her a target of verbal abuse, threats, and arbitrary arrest, forcing her to flee Somalia and seek exile in Uganda. Yet, she remains extremely vocal about human rights violations in her country. “I’ve lost so many of my friends due to cruelties, so I can’t keep quiet,” she says.

Human Rights Defender of the Month: Omot Agwa Okwoy

In Ethiopia, land grabbing and villagisation has resulted in severe human rights abuses, however, being vocal about these abuses can be extremely risky. Omot Agwa Okwoy, our human rights defender of the month for December 2019, has fought for land rights and the rights of indigenous people in the Gambella region in Ethiopia for almost 20 years – leaving him with visible and invisible scars.

Human Rights Defender of the Month: Brenda Kugonza

Brenda Kugonza has fought for women’s rights in Uganda for more than 13 years, and is currently the Executive Director of Women Human Rights Defenders Network-Uganda (WHRDN-U). “As a defender, you lose friends and family members – they don’t want to be associated with someone who brings them shame. We are viewed as women with bad manners and I struggle daily with discrimination,” she affirms.

Human Rights Defender of the Month:  Gladness Hemedi Munuo 

Gladness Hemedi Munuo is a journalist and an award-winning gender activist from Tanzania, with more than 20 years of human rights and media experience. “Shrinking space and crackdown on media causes huge problems in Tanzania – to me it’s a thing that needs serious and immediate action,” she stresses.

Human Rights Defender of the Month: Moses Kabaseke

Moses Kabaseke, a talented hip-hop artist and activist from the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), was forced to flee to Uganda in 2013 – at only 16 years old. Kabaseke, known by his stage name Belidor, has produced music since he was a child. “I use music as a weapon – music has power. I use music to promote human rights.”

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