Dar es Salaam. On October 8, 2021, authorities in Tanzania charged political satirist Opptatus John Fwema with “publications of false information,” sending shock waves across the community of political satirists in Tanzania who are already operating in unfriendly legal, financial as well as political environments.
Some of Tanzania’s renowned political cartoonists told The Chanzo on Monday that the prosecution of their colleague has terrified and saddened them at the same time, surprised by the government’s apparent failure to differentiate a fact from an opinion; a photo from a political cartoon; as well as satire from seriousness.
The government alleges that between September 15 and 20 this year, Fwema, a freelance editorial cartoonist based in Dar es Salaam, published in a computer system “a picture” of President Samia Suluhu Hassan and former President Jakaya Mrisho Kikwete purportedly aiming to show that Tanzania is presently led by the latter and not by the former, “knowingly that such information is false,” reads the charge sheet seen by The Chanzo.
The government is charging Fwema under the draconian and highly controversial piece of legislation, the Cybercrime Act, 2015 whose section 16 criminalizes the publication of “false” information through a computer system. Fwema had published his political cartoon on his Instagram page where he publishes most of his works under the username @johnoppter.
Detained arbitrarily for two weeks
Before he was produced in the Kisutu Resident Magistrate Court on October 8, 2021, and charged with the offence, police had reportedly detained Fwema for fourteen days. Fwema is now out on bail and he’s scheduled to reappear in court on October 16, 2021, when his case will be brought for hearing, his lawyer Mr Shilinde Swedi told The Chanzo on Monday.
“What is really saddening is to see a government determined to prosecute a political cartoonist in a country that has produced a lot of internationally recognized cartoonists for many years,” Mr James Gayo, the artist and creator of the Tanzanian comic strip ‘Kingo,’ told The Chanzo on Monday. “Killing this passion is something that is really disappointing.”
No political cartoonist prior to Fwema has been prosecuted in the past 60 years since Tanzania gained its independence, a fact that makes Mr Gayo describe Fwema’s case as “both historic and unprecedented.” Gayo, with over forty years of experience as a cartoonist in Tanzania, says he has never seen any cartoonist being prosecuted in the past, something he fears the latest prosecution will set “a very dangerous precedent.”
He says during the interview: “I’m personally astonished. It is quite a saddening decision to prosecute anyone for doing what he or she is supposed to do in order to survive. An editorial cartoon, as a form of journalism, allows people to express their opinions. Prosecuting people for merely expressing their opinions is a very saddening thing.”
It’s not without intentions
Mr Gayo does not think the government’s decision to prosecute Fwema is innocent and without any intentions. He believes that the government is sending a message to all editorial cartoonists in Tanzania that they need to think twice before they go ahead and do their artistic works.
An independent editorial cartoonist based in Dar es Salaam Kinyanguli Tunzo, popularly known by his artistic name King Kinya told The Chanzo on Monday that though the development of having his colleague prosecuted for sharing his opinion through satire is fearful, “the case empowers me more than it breaks me.”
“It has to reach a time where our people in the government get used to satire and political cartoon in particular,” Kinya, who publishes his editorial cartoons with The Citizen newspaper as well as in his social media platforms said during an interview. “It’s a pleasure to have an artist caricaturing you, not all people have that opportunity.”
He says that though the prosecution of his colleague will lead to self-censorship, “I’ll not stop doing editorial cartoons. This is the only tool I have to express my opinions. Besides, the work I do touch the hearts of so many people that no one’s intimidation can convince me to stop doing it. I’m aware of the consequences, including having your cartoons rejected or face prosecution but it’s a sacrifice I’m willing to make.”
While Mr Gayo believes the judges will rule accordingly and make sure that justice is being served, he says that by going ahead with the prosecution plan the government has already done the damage that he thinks is “irreversible.” Gayo, who is also a filmmaker, clarifies:
“Confidence and peace of mind are at the centre of any artistic work. When you take an artist through such prosecution and other forms of harassment the two are totally affected and it’ll take time until the artist recovers. Fwema is no exception and that’s why his case is very saddening.”
Masoud Kipanya is a popular political cartoonist based in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. Commenting broadly on Fwema’s case, Kipanya, who also doubles as a host of radio and TV talk shows, stressed the importance of people understanding cartoons as forms of art, noting that currently, such an understanding is missing in the country.
“Many people interpret cartoons as news stories like a journalist has written a particular story,” he says during an interview. “But a cartoon is neither a news story nor a news article. Problems step from our interpretation of cartoons. And, unfortunately, you cannot teach people how to interpret cartoons. As a literary work, a cartoon can be interpreted in various ways. But we will solve a lot of problems if people are able to interpret cartoons correctly.”
Khalifa Said is a writer and editor for The Chanzo, covering politics and social justice. He can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter at @ThatBoyKhalifax.