Tanzanian court starts trial of co-founders of whistleblower website

DAR ES SALAAM (Reuters) - A Tanzanian court on Thursday began hearing a case against two co-founders of a whistleblower website who are charged with obstructing justice by refusing to reveal the identities of users who post details of suspected corrupt officials.

Prosecutors charged Micke William and Maxence Melo Mubyazi, owners of the Jamiiforums site, under the Cybercrimes Act.

Several people have been charged under the law, which came into effect in 2015, and it is viewed by rights groups and the opposition as part of efforts by President John Magufuli’s government to limit liberties such as freedom of expression.

If convicted, William, 27, and Mubyazi, 40, could face a fine of up to 3 million shillings ($1,300) or a jail term of at least one year, or both. They denied the charges.

A police investigator said William and Mubyazi had “intentionally and unlawfully concealed the identities” of members of the website who posted false information against two companies.The accused have denied allegations by officials that the site allows users to post fabrications and seditious content. The case was adjourned until Sept. 20.

The co-owners of the website also face related cybercrimes charges in two other separate cases, including one accusing them of operating an unregistered website.

The Committee to Protect Journalists has said the government should investigate corruption allegations instead of “pressurising a website to violate its users’ trust and privacy”.Under the Cybercrimes law, any person who publishes “false, deceptive, misleading or inaccurate” information on websites or social media sites commits a criminal offence.

Persons convicted of publication of false information face a fine of at least 5 million shillings or less than 3 years in jail or both.More than 10 people, including university students and opposition politicians, have been charged in different court cases over the past year for insulting the president via social networking platforms.

The United States canceled nearly $500 million of funding for Tanzania last year partly to express its disapproval.

Magufuli has won some praise from western donors for an anti-corruption drive and cutting wasteful public spending, but opponents accuse him of undermining democracy by curbing dissent and stifling free speech.He says his anti-graft drive has won the confidence of development partners and investors.

Businesses have long said corruption and government inefficiency are major obstacles to investing in Tanzania, which ranked 116 out of 176 countries in Transparency International’s 2016 corruption index, where No. 1 is deemed least corrupt.

Magufuli has dismissed thousands of public officials, including the head of the government’s anti-graft body, the tax chief, a senior railway official and the head of the port authority as part of his drive against corruption.

Editing by Giles Elgood