Mbeya. A court in Mbeya has dismissed a case against three gospel artists in the southwestern part of Tanzania after authorities showed no interest in proceeding with the prosecution, which many criticised as an attempt to suppress freedom of expression in the country.
The musicians – Sifa Boniventura Bujune, Salome Mwampeta and Hezekiel Millyashi – were charged in September this year with publishing “false information” under the controversial Cybercrime Act of 2015 after singing about police brutality and irresponsive governance.
In their song titled Mnatuona Nyani, which translates to You See Us As Apes in English, the artists, among other vices they highlight, allege that a young man had his teeth uprooted by police officers for no reason, a charge that authorities considered a “false information.”
But after going for four months, a judge at the District Court of Mbeya on December 14, 2023, dismissed the case against the trio following a lack of interest on the part of the government to proceed with criticism-laden prosecution.
Philip Mwakilima, an independent advocate defending the artists in the case, told The Chanzo recently that authorities decided not to proceed with the case because they knew it was groundless and they would not win.
“We had withdrawn our earlier objections raised on the matter of law to see if the government could really go ahead with the prosecution of these artists,” Mr Mwakilima said during an interview. “But it appeared that they also lost interest in going ahead with the case, so the court dismissed it.”
Authorities’ move to seek the conviction of the musicians attracted criticism from many people online, with others urging the Samia Suluhu Hassan Administration not to entertain actions that put Tanzanians’ freedom of expression in danger.
Fatma Karume, a renowned human rights activist and lawyer in the country, described the government’s decision as “intolerable” in a statement on X, formerly Twitter, a social media platform, on September 20, 2023.
“When the government is denying there is police brutality and arrests anyone who protests police brutality, it’s clear someone somewhere wants to hide the skeletons and has no intention of bringing about reforms,” said Ms Karume in another post.
Many interpreted authorities’ attempt to convict the artists as interfering with the musicians’ artistic freedom, which members of the sector have been complaining about becoming under attack recently.
They have pointed to authorities’ decisions to interfere with artists’ works, especially those whose songs have political messages and are critical of the government, including banning several songs by dissident rapper Nay Wa Mitego, who also complained that authorities were blocking him from performing the songs.
Robert Mwampembwa is a Managing Director of the Cultural Industries Network Tanzania (CINT), a not-for-profit organisation championing the welfare of the country’s creative sector, including addressing legal and policy issues that affect it.
During an interview with The Chanzo in November this year, Mr Mwampembwa complained that Tanzania’s authorities have become increasingly obsessed with silencing artists who express alternative viewpoints, condemning the practice as counterproductive.
“Let’s be honest here,” said Mr Mwampembwa, who has been vocal in his opposition to state censorship in Tanzania. “No artist is free in Tanzania. No artist in this country can produce an artistic work that directly or indirectly criticises a certain leader, especially the president, and remain safe.”
“The government should stop using security organs to intimidate artists for their works,” Mr Mwampembwa demanded. “There are many ways it can communicate its disagreement with the artist. Nor should it be allowed just to ban artists’ works. We must ensure our leaders appreciate art and the creativity that accompanies it.”
Modesta Mwambene reports for The Chanzo from Mbeya. She is available at email@example.com.