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Tanzania: use UN rights review to recommit to civic space

Tanzania should use its human rights review at the Uni­ted Nations (UN) Human Rights Council to renew its commitment to civic space, De­fend­Defenders said today. Tanzania’s Universal Periodic Review (UPR) presents an opportunity for President Samia Suluhu Hassan’s government to demonstrate to the international com­mu­nity that the coun­try will live up to its obligations towards civil society actors and civic space.

“After years of backsliding, we welcomed the positive signals President Hassan sent when she assumed office,” said Hassan Shire, Exe­cu­tive Direc­tor, DefendDefenders. “Tanzania’s UPR is an occasion for the govern­ment to make clear that it intends to promote and protect civic space in the country, in line with the country’s history of openness.

Under the leadership of the late John Magufuli, from 2015 to 2020, and until his sudden passing in March 2021, Tanzania adopted a series of draconian laws and used extra-judicial me­thods to harass human rights defenders (HRDs) and independent civil society organi­sa­tions (CSOs) and to restrict freedoms of expression, peaceful as­sem­­bly, and association. Political opposition mem­bers were subjected to physical attacks. Fear and self-censorship rose as media houses saw their licenses suspended or revoked; HRDs were detained, and lawyers disbarred.[1]

These developments resulted in a shrinking civic and democratic space, documented by human rights and UN actors. The situation pushed civil society to call on Tanzania’s partners to raise their con­cerns, both bilaterally and in UN fora.[2] Ahead of the 28 October 2020 national elections, 65 CSOs high­lighted “systematic restrictions on fundamental freedoms” in Tanzania.[3]

The swearing in of President Hassan, in March 2021, offered hope. In early speeches, President Hassan indicated that she intended to uphold freedom of expression and due process. Media outlets that had seen their licenses suspended or revoked were able to resume operations. CSOs, inclu­ding the Tanzania Human Rights Defenders Coalition (THRDC), whose bank accounts were un­­fro­zen, re­ceived positive signals pertaining to the rule of law, human rights, and good gover­nan­ce.[4]

However, questions remain following developments in recent months. Tanzanian authorities or­de­red the suspension of two newspapers, Uhuru and Raia Mwema, for publishing “false infor­mation,” and arrested op­po­sition leader Freeman Mbowe just before he was due to launch a cons­titutional reform pro­gram­­me. He is facing economic crimes- and financing of terrorism-rela­ted charges. Additionally, a cartoonist, Opptertus John Fwema, and journalists were detained on cybercrime and illegal as­sem­bly allegations.[5] These developments seem to run counter to the commitments of President Hassan.

Tanzania’s third UPR, which is set to take place on 5 November 2021, is an opportunity for Tan­za­nia to renew its com­mitment to the freedoms of expression, peaceful as­sem­­bly, and asso­ciation of all Tanzanians, including opposition members and independent voices such as HRDs and hu­man rights orga­ni­sations.

The UPR is a process set up by the Human Rights Council, the UN’s top human rights body. Every four-and-a-half years, every UN member state undergoes a review of its human rights re­cord in a process in which it receives recommendations from other states, which it can accept or reject (“note”). Civil society can participate in the process by sub­mitting “alter­na­tive reports” and en­ga­ging in advocacy at the na­tional and UN levels.

Ahead of Tanzania’s review, DefendDefenders and CIVICUS submitted a report[6] analysing the state of civic space in the country, and formulated recommendations to improve the situation.


For more information, please contact:

Estella Kabachwezi

Advocacy, Research and Communications Manager, DefendDefenders; [email protected] or +256 782 360 460 (English)

Nicolas Agostini

Representative to the United Nations for DefendDefenders; [email protected] or +41 79 813 49 91 (English and French) 


[1] DefendDefenders, “Spreading Fear, Asserting Control: Tanzania’s assault on civic space,” 26 June 2018, See also DefendDefenders et al., “Tanzania: Systematic restrictions on fundamental freedoms in the run-up to national elections,” 22 October 2020, (both accessed on 1st November 2021).

[2] See DefendDefenders et al., “Tanzania: 38 NGOs call on states to express concern over the human rights situation,” 13 May 2019, (accessed on 1st November 2021).

[3] DefendDefenders et al., “Tanzania: Systematic restrictions […],” op. cit.

[4] “A Public Statement to THRDC’s Members, Stakeholders of the Coalition, Donors and the Public at Large about Unfreezing of THRDC Bank Accounts,” 20 April 2021, (accessed on 1st November 2021).

[5] CPJ, “Tanzania police arrest cartoonist, journalists on cybercrime and illegal assembly allegations,” 7 October 2021, (accessed on 1st November 2021).

[6] “DefendDefenders and CIVICUS release report ahead of Tanzania’s UPR review,” 29 March 2021, (accessed on 1st November 2021).


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