[Graphic courtesy of Risha Chande, Twaweza]

Two South African journalists from the Committee to Protect Journalists were unexpectedly detained in Tanzania last month. The pair traveled to Dar es Salaam to investigate the challenges the Tanzanian press face under an increasingly hostile regime; their understanding became uncomfortably clear when they were arrested and later released for allegedly violating the terms of their visas by holding meetings with local journalists. This incident was just the latest in a series of journalist detentions and beatings by Tanzanian police.

Tanzanian civil society has felt the government’s tightening grip and had to restrategize in order to continue working under a regime that is actively closing civic space. Risha Chande, Director of Communications for Twaweza recently spoke at the MIT-Africa forum and described this approach as “walking the line.” How can civil society organizations navigate an increasingly dangerous political landscape while still keeping their commitment to the public to advocate for civic freedom?

Long viewed as a moderate, peaceful, and pro-democratic voice in the region, Tanzania is experiencing a series of “shocks to civic space.” Under President Magufuli, elected in 2015, civic freedoms have undergone an unprecedented attack. Risha revealed that a Twaweza survey finds that 92% of Tanzanians in 2016 believed that democracy is crucial to a functioning society, but now they are significantly less free to exercise freedom of speech. The Magufuli Administration passed laws to gag dissident voices, notably the “Electronic and Postal Communications Regulation 2018” which requires bloggers, social media influencers, and online platforms to pay a licensing fee of approximately $930, a prohibitive cost to most. The government also has the ability to revoke the license should the website or blogger post content that leads to public disorder.

Twaweza is one of the leading civil society organizations in Tanzania, and is on the frontlines of the fight to keep civic space open and free, employing innovative data collection and assessments, advocacy, and media engagement to foster an active citizenry and responsive government. One of their primary tools is Sauti Za Wananchi, a rapid-response phone survey used to regularly collect information from a representative cross-section of Tanzanian society, quickly, efficiently, and at low cost. The main purpose of the survey is to gather citizen views and experiences to seed public debate in the media with data, and to inform policymakers as to the needs and aspirations of their citizens.

Twaweza is carefully walking the line, even as the line is constantly shifting as the political situation evolves. Risha outlined several key points in Twaweza’s strategy to continue working with the government while still pressuring it to do better. First is the commitment to be more rigorous than ever in data collection, analysis, and reporting. When the results of a survey are critical of the government, Twaweza needs to be able to defend its research against attempts to discredit it. To complicate this approach, a recent amendment to Tanzania’s Statistics Act criminalizes the dissemination of any statistical information that contradicts official government-produced statistics, essentially outlawing fact-checking. The implications of this amendment for Twaweza, particularly for its Sauti Za Wananchi survey, are still to be determined.

Second, Twaweza keeps up with all legal developments and ensures that it is compliant with the latest regulations. Working within the bureaucracy, not against it, makes it easier to collaborate with civil servants and reduces Twaweza’s potential to attract negative attention from the government. The challenge is finding a way to be compliant with restrictive regulations without compromising Twaweza’s responsibility to the public.

A third tactic Risha highlighted is working in coalitions with other civil society organizations, where strength is found in unity and any backlash is diffused among the group of organizations. Risha noted that working in coalitions has been proven to be effective, but can have drawbacks when interpersonal politics develop. Twaweza is also trying out new approaches; for example, the courts in Tanzania ruled in favor of protecting civic rights in a number of recent cases and Twaweza, together with partner civil society organizations, is considering strategic litigation as one avenue of pushing back against closing civic space. Walking the line requires experimentation, risk-taking, and learning from what works and what doesn’t work. We at GOV/LAB look forward to partnering and learning with Twaweza as they navigate future uncertainties.

MIT GOV/LAB was excited to host Risha in partnership with MIT-Africa, an initiative that seeks mutually beneficial engagement in research, education and innovation, contributing to economic and intellectual trajectories of African countries, while advancing MIT scholarship and research.