Reporters Without Borders (RSF) condemns cartoonist Optatus Fwema’s arbitrary detention for the past two weeks in Tanzania over a cartoon of the president. This is the latest chilling message to journalists in a country where press freedom has been worsening steadily in recent years.
Fwema has been held at Oysterbay police station in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania’s business capital, ever since he was arrested at his home on 24 September. The police returned to his home on 5 October to look for incriminating evidence without telling his lawyer.
RSF has learned that Fwema has not been formally charged although, under Tanzanian law, the police are not allowed to hold a suspect for more than 48 hours without bringing a charge. He could be taken before a court today.
Fwema posted the offending cartoon on his Instagram page. It portrays President Samia Suluhu – who took over when President John Magufuli died in March – as a girl playing with basin of water while behind her, Jakaya Kikwete, who was Magufuli’s predecessor as president and who is regarded as her mentor, is seen reassuring the population. The cartoon illustrated Kikwete’s current influential role in Tanzanian politics.
“Only the worst authoritarian regimes jail cartoonists over an ordinary satirical cartoon of the country’s leader,” said Arnaud Froger, the head of RSF’s Africa desk. “This arbitrary detention is the latest disastrous signal for press freedom, which has worsened steadily in recent years. We call for this cartoonist’s immediate and unconditional release and we urge the president not to take the same predatory road as her predecessor.”
Fwema’s arrest came two weeks after home affairs minister George Simbachawene called on the police to take action against those “committing crimes” on social media, especially those who “insult the president.”
The new information and communications minister, Ashatu Kijaji, also delivered a disturbing speech three weeks ago, saying journalists should be “guided by patriotism towards the nation” and warning that she would not tolerate journalists who try to “tarnish the country’s image.”
One of Tanzania’s most popular independent newspapers, Raia Mwema, was suspended for 30 days on 6 September because it identified a man who had killed three police officers and an embassy security guard on 25 August as a member of Chama Cha Mapinduzi (CCM), the party that has ruled Tanzania since independence in 1962.
At a meeting with journalists in June, President Suluhu said her administration would strengthen freedom of speech and support media development. A few weeks before that, she pledged to lift sanctions imposed on media outlets in the past. None of these promises has been kept.
Tanzania is ranked 124th out of 180 countries in RSF’s 2021 World Press Freedom Index, having fallen a total of 53 places since 2016. No other country has suffered such a big fall in recent years.