“Elections give the US moral authority to challenge authoritarian regimes”

[vc_row][vc_column][vc_single_image image=”115489″ img_size=”full” add_caption=”yes”][/vc_column][/vc_row][vc_row][vc_column][vc_column_text]As I type we are still awaiting the final vote tallies for the US elections and while it looks like we will have a new president inaugurated in January, we’re still awaiting confirmation.

I am a politics addict. I love elections. I love campaigning. But most of all I love the fact that elections are a demonstration of public will. In a democracy, every person’s voice is heard and carries the same weight – at least that’s the plan. It is, and should be, one of the purest forms of an individual’s freedom of expression. This is an opportunity for our voices to be heard, to endorse or to challenge the status quo. It is our time to send a message about what type of society we want to live in and who embodies that desire. This is the fabric of our democracy and is at the heart of who we are.

Elections also send a message to the world about the resilience of a nation state’s democratic processes. Which is why events in the USA this week have been such a concern. In the middle of a global pandemic it should be no surprise to anyone that the results were going to take a while. Given the fractious nature of US politics over the last four years we also shouldn’t be surprised at the political rhetoric, centred on the concept of election stealing, emerging from the White House. But the cynical undermining of the core premise of free and fair elections is so dangerous and not just because of the impact that it will have on US society.

US elections set a bar for emergent democracies around the world. They give the USA the moral authority to challenge authoritarian and repressive regimes. They also, vitally, inspire hope in people around the world who seek to have their own voices heard.

Which is why it is so concerning to not only be watching events unfold but to have read the OSCE’s independent assessment of the election. While praising the organisational competence of the election officials they stated that: “Nobody – no politician, no elected official – should limit the people’s right to vote. Coming after such a highly dynamic campaign, making sure that every vote is counted is a fundamental obligation for all branches of government. Baseless allegations of systematic deficiencies, notably by the incumbent president, including on election night, harm public trust in democratic institutions.”

These comments alone give succour to dictators around the world. What criticism can the US state department level at national leaders who seek to undermine their own democratic processes if the US president has questioned the validity of his own democracy?

The imminent result is therefore not just incredibly important for Americans, but vital for the rest of the world. Which is why I keep refreshing the vote count in Philadelphia County…[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row][vc_row][vc_column][three_column_post title=”You might also like to read” category_id=”41669″][/vc_column][/vc_row]

Tanzania: will Magufuli return to power in free and fair elections?

[vc_row][vc_column][vc_single_image image=”115317″ img_size=”full” add_caption=”yes”][vc_column_text]On 28 October, Tanzania goes to the polls. The election will see the Tanzanian people choose a new president, members of parliaments for the mainland as well as Zanzibar and local councillors.

If the elections are free and fair, there is no reason to believe that the incumbent president John Magufuli will not be returned to power. He has a commanding lead in the opinion polls – independent surveys say that 80 per cent of people on the mainland and 71 per cent in Zanzibar are going to vote for him.

Magufuli came to power in 2015, promising to reduce government corruption and spending. He also vowed to increase investment in the country’s industries. He represents the Chama Cha Mapinduzi (CCM) party that has been in power ever since 1961 when the country gained independence from Britain.

Since his election, Magufuli has been seen to be tough on corruption, particularly related to the mining sector which generates significant incomes for the country.

In 2017, Magufuli presented London-based Acacia with a US$190 billion bill for back tax related to metallic ores exported from the country. The company denied any wrongdoing but its Canadian parent opted to pay the country US$300 million to settle the claims and agreed to share the economic benefits more equitably.

There is also a feeling that Magufuli has handled the Covid pandemic well, although many believe that the country’s statistics do not tell the real story.

At a church service in June, Magufuli claimed that coronavirus had been “removed by the powers of God”.

The number of cases in the country has been stuck at 509 for weeks though that has more to do with the country not releasing official statistics rather than the virus being defeated. Opposition figures claim the true figure is in the tens of thousands and that hundreds have died.

The president clearly has no confidence in the country’s testing regime. Earlier this year he suspended the head of the country’s national health laboratory in charge of coronavirus testing after it was claimed that secret tests carried out on animals, fruits and vehicle oil at the laboratory had tested positive for Covid.

“People genuinely believe he has handled Covid well,” said one person who has had close political and business links with Tanzania for more than 30 years, speaking on condition of anonymity. “His view has been that people in Tanzania would suffer much more from having a lockdown rather than having a few cases and people been getting on with life as normal.”

Part of this may be due to the fact that Tanzania is relatively young – just 3.8 per cent of the country’s 60 million population are aged 65 or over and more likely to die from the disease.

“When infections were higher back in May, people did a lot of traditional remedies, and there was a lot of reliance on local knowledge then, and prayer, and then when things got better people relaxed a bit more,” says Tanzanian poet and writer Neema Komba.

The presence of mass crowds at political gatherings, usually without masks, is perhaps a sign that Covid is no longer considered a serious risk in the country, whatever the truth is about a virus that has killed more than a million people worldwide.

She says that Tanzanians are very aware of individual responsibility.

“There is a saying in Swahili that really reflects the attitude – ‘za kuambiwa changanya na za kwako’  – which means something like what you are told you should analyse on your own”.

Tanzania’s economy is not doing too badly either.

In the 1980s, it was one of the poorest countries in the world. In the middle of that decade, the country embarked on a liberalisation programme under President Ali Hassan Mwinyi which removed price controls, reduced the budget deficit and restructured many of the country’s state-owned enterprises. It has now jumped above many of its fellow African nations in terms of GDP, averaging growth of more than six per cent every year since 2000. This year, growth may fall to between 1.9 and 4 per cent.

The influential businessman with political connections who spoke to Index said, “Magufuli will win this easily. He has a lot of support from people who are fed up with inequalities and fed up with greed that some politicians have shown in the past. The Tanzanian people believe he is generally on their side and that those who are barred form standing have probably got it coming to them.”

Yet the key question is still, will the elections be free and fair?

Magufuli himself vowed in January that the elections would be free and fair but opposition politicians are not convinced. The main opposition party Chadema (Party for Democracy and Progress) has had hundreds of its candidates for parliament and councils disqualified.

Chadema presidential candidate Tundu Lissu was prevented from campaigning for seven days in early October by the NEC for allegedly contravening election rules while Zanzibar’s commission suspended campaigning by ACT Wazalendo candidate  Maalim Seif.

Both have been accused of using ‘seditious’ or ‘inciting’ language and some feel that it is only opposition candidates that are picked up on this.

NEC director Dr Wilson Mahera told Tanzania’s Daily News that candidates needed to follow the regulations.

“A leader who continues causing public fears, uttering seditious words may find himself/herself out of the list of candidates before polling date,” said Dr Mahera.

There is a changing mood in the country relating to the media.

The country has typically done well on RSF’s World Press Freedom Index compared to many of its near neighbours.  The media has generally been free in the country, particularly under Benjamin Mkapa who ruled the country from 1995 to 2005. Mkapa worked as managing editor of a number of newspapers in the country in the mid-60s to early 70s before starting his political career as press secretary under Julius Nyerere, who took Tanzania to independence.

However, this year the government has tightened up laws which bars Tanzanian broadcasters from airing national or international content on their platforms without prior permission from the government

In June, the government withdrew the licence of newspaper Tanzania Daima for “extreme and repetitive” offences that violate the country’s laws and journalistic ethics.

In July, the government began a crackdown on the use of social media. The Electronic and Postal Communications (Online Content) Regulations 2020 bans “news, statements or rumours for the purpose of ridicule, abuse or harming the reputation, prestige or status of the United Republic, the flag of the United Republic, the national anthem or the United Republic’s symbol, national anthem or its logos”.

“Social media is an interesting space,” says Komba. “I would say there are various Tanzanias on social media but then perhaps it is about the algorithms that show you what you want to see. From my observations, if you are on Twitter, you will get more political discussions, while Facebook and Instagram are completely different and then you have spaces like Jamii forums where people voice their opinions more boldly and WhatsApp where people have more private discussions.”

She added, “The cybercrime act has made it quite challenging for people to freely express themselves. So, perhaps we need to ask ourselves, what aren’t people saying?”

Magufuli has been tough on corruption in the mining sector which has given him popular appeal.

Despite this crackdown, Komba says there seem to be positive steps to make the elections freer than in the past.

“Tanzania has invited international observers and we hope that these observers will give us the answers about the fairness and freeness of the elections, but unfortunately, we only get this information after elections are done. The National Electoral Commission has also allowed the use of alternate IDs in case of voter ID loss, which is also something positive. And, there is still voter education given by various stakeholders.”

Our interviewee said, “Magufuli could easily be re-elected in an completely open and transparent way but people in the CCM are paranoid about the opposition. The concept of a loyal opposition is not one that is deeply embedded.”

If Magufuli wins re-election for a second term – as all of his predecessors since independence have done – then the question is what next?  Will he attempt to change the constitution so that he could remain in power as others have done elsewhere in the world?

He added: “I am pretty sure that even if he wanted to, there are enough ambitious and powerful people in the CCM who want their turn at the presidency.”

[/vc_column_text][three_column_post title=”You might also like to read” category_id=”540″][/vc_column][/vc_row]

Podcast: The Disappeared: How people, books and ideas are taken away, with Oliver Farry and Michella Oré

In our autumn 2020 podcast we speak with Hong Kong-based journalist Oliver Farry, who discusses the crackdown on pro-democracy demonstrations in the region, which was once a beacon of free expression. And New York-based journalist Michella Oré tells us why, even if Donald Trump doesn’t win a second presidential term, his stint in The White House has sparked a fire in the USA which will be hard to put out. Also Jemimah Steinfeld and Orna Herr from the Index editorial team discuss their favourite articles from the new magazine.

Print copies of the magazine are available via print subscription or digital subscription through Exact Editions. Each magazine sale helps Index on Censorship continue its fight for free expression worldwide.

“Have you ever felt joy from finding out a loved one is in prison?”


Yury Savitsky, his wife Ekaterina and their son Nikita.

At 6pm on 10 August, 32-year-old Yury Savitsky was working in his tyre repair shop when a group of unknown people burst in, forcefully put his hands behind his back and forced him into a van with tinted windows and drove off.

Savitsky’s abduction came a day after a disputed presidential election in the country which saw incumbent Alexander Lukashenko announced as the official winner, picking up 80% of the vote and giving Lukashenko, who has been president since 1994, another five-year term.

The night before, Savitsky had taken part in a protest against the election results. International observers say that only Lukashenko’s 1994 victory has been the result of free and fair elections and many governments around the world have said they do not accept the result.

Back in May, a number of rivals to Lukashenko’s two and a half decades of power began to emerge: Viktar Babaryka, tech entrepreneur Valery Tsepkalo, popular YouTuber Sergei Tikhanovsky and lawyer Hanna Kanapatskaya.

In independent polls, Babaryka quickly emerged as the frontrunner.

Savitsky was one of those who wanted change.

His wife Ekaterina told Index by email: “My husband joined a group whose initiative was to promote [Babaryka] for president, but due to being busy with family affairs – work, family, helping his pension-age mother – he was not very active.”

As part of this group, Savitsky helped collect just 10 signatures from friends for Babaryka’s electoral registration.

“He consistently read the news and actively discussed with his friends the injustice of what was happening. But I was very worried,” said Ekaterina.

In May, Viktar Babaryka was detained on charges of illegal financial activities and his name was later struck from the election due to alleged financial inconsistencies which he denies.

Two days after Tikhanovsky announced he would run against Lukashenko, he was arrested on charges of participating in an unauthorised protest in December 2019. When his registration to take part in the election was refused, his wife Svetlana Tikhanovskaya decided to run in his place and collected the required number of valid signatures.

Meanwhile, Valery Tsepkalo was told in June that he had not achieved the required 100,000 valid signatures on his registration to take part, despite submitting 160,000. In July, he fled to Russia, fearing for his life.

After the official election result emerged, Svetlana Tikhanovskaya made an official complant but was detained for seven hours and released a video, apparently filmed under duress, calling on the people of Belarus to accept Lukashenko’s victory. After her release she fled to Lithuania where she released another video claiming it was she, not Lukashenko, who had actually won the election and with 60 to 70% of the vote.

Since the disputed result was announced, mostly peaceful protests have sprung up around the country, including women dressed in white forming solidarity chains and handing flowers to the security forces and military which our CEO Ruth Smeeth wrote about here.

Many of Lukanshenko’s opponents as well as critical journalists have been detained or tortured. News outlet Onliner.by reported how blood-stained protesters including journalist Ivan Mourauyou had been detained and beaten in a gym.

After Savitsky’s disappearance on 10 August, his wife Ekaterina – who is currently writing a children’s book about the Belarusian capital Minsk and with whom Savitsky has a four-year-old son Nikita – spent the next five days desperately trying to find out what had happened to him.

“No one from the government would tell me anything about his whereabouts or what had happened to him,” she said.

Ekaterina constantly tried to ring government phone lines where “you can find the status of everything/everyone” but they were constantly busy.  She scoured lists of detained political prisoners that volunteers had been producing.

In desperation, she started visiting the prison in Okrestina Street in the town of Zhodino, where many protestors had been detained, in the hope of catching sight of her husband or hearing news of his fate.

It was a terrible place to wait for news.

“There are the screams and groans of political prisoners being beaten inside the prison walls. There is a non-stop chain of government prison trucks entering and ambulances exiting, taking beaten and traumatised political prisoners out. Every day you see terror, pain and tears in the eyes of mothers and wives awaiting for the release of political prisoners,” she said.

She told Index, “In this fiery jar of hell and blindness you find yourself for days at a time, in hopes of finding out at least something about your loved ones. I was praying that at least my husband would be in the Zhodino prison, because rumours are that at least they don’t beat their prisoners and possibly even feed them.”

This period of uncertainty was taking its toll on the family. Savitsky ‘s mother would only utter one thing – “I pray that he is alive”.  The couple’s four-year-old Nikita would constantly ask for his parents.

“In this ordeal, I have been forced to learn not to break out into tears myself and instead support others,” said Ekaterina.

With no official news on who was in the prison, Ekaterina resorted to another method – running up to each released prisoner with a photo of Savitsky and asking “I’m sorry, was there someone with you who looked like this?”

After days of anxious waiting with no news, Ekaterina’s approach bore fruit – one of the emerging prisoners recognised Savitsky’s photograph.

“Have you ever felt joy from finding out a loved one is in prison? As absurd as it sounds, at least I knew my husband was alive,” said Ekaterina.

That was the good news. The bad news was that the government was preparing a criminal case against him. “They had already interrogated him, without a lawyer and without notifying any relatives,” said Ekaterina.

“I started to look for lawyers but many right now are overwhelmed with work and many are not taking on criminal cases,” she said.

Ekaterina eventually found one who would take on the case and returned to Zhodino with the lawyer.

“I was finally able to find out the details – my husband is accused of ‘organising mass protests based on article 293 of the Republic of Belarus,’” she said.

“My husband is accused of participating in and organising massive unsanctioned/illegal protests. He is also charged with the crime of using his vehicle to block the critical movement of people and vehicles, even though he doesn’t own a car and was without a car that night.”

“He didn’t break anything, he didn’t throw anything, he didn’t use any means of force,” she said. “I supported my husband, because I consider him a brave and responsible person. He went to the peaceful protest, hoping to impact change in our country and for the future of our son.”

On 19 August, Alexander Lukashenko announced he had ordered security forces to end the unrest in Minsk, despite protests from around the world.

Savitsky faces up to 15 years in prison if convicted.

“I am overcome by horror,” said Ekaterina. “At the moment, my husband is the only breadwinner in our family. But the most terrifying thing – at home awaits his four-year-old son who doesn’t understand where his dad is. I don’t know what to tell him.”[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row]