Last year two foreign journalists were detained in Tanzania. Both were members of the Committee To Protect Journalists (CPJ) – a non-governmental organisation that promotes press freedom and defends the rights of journalists. The country’s immigration department said they were arrested because they violated the stated purpose of their visit to Tanzania. This followed the harassment of Tanzanian journalists and media outlets. George Otieno Ogola spoke to Jonathan Rozen, CPJ’s Africa researcher, about the state of press freedom in Tanzania.
How free is the press in Tanzania – is it less free now than in other periods in its history?
Tanzanian authorities have worked to control the press for a long time. Back in 2013 we noted “a web of anti-press laws to keep the press in check”.
Unfortunately, under President John Magufuli, who came into power in 2015, legislative and regulatory reforms have resulted in a framework that continues to target the media, especially online publications.
During the first year of his tenure two radio stations – Radio Five and Magic FM – and the Mawio newspaper were banned. Two Mawio editors were briefly detained and questioned about their coverage of politics in Zanzibar. The following year, after a court ruling permitted Mawio to reopen, the newspaper was again banned.
The repeated targeting of Mawio showcased a persistent effort to silence a newspaper. It’s an experience other outlets know well. It also revealed the evolution of Tanzanian laws used against the press.
In 2016, the decades old newspaper act – which was used to ban Mawio that year – was replaced by the Media Services Act, which was in turn used to ban Mawio in 2017. In late December 2018, a Tanzanian court lifted the latest ban on Mawio. But licensing issues prevent it from going to print.
What are the big challenges?
A major challenge is the new legal actions and regulations that heavily restrict journalism in Tanzania. These include the 2015 Cybercrimes Act, which designates jail time for “insulting” Magufuli. There’s also the 2016 Media Services Act, which designates jail time for sedition.
On top of this, the electronic and postal communications regulations enacted in 2018 target forums, blogs, and streaming websites. They are forced to pay heavy registration fees. If they fail to do so, they risk imprisonment or heavier fines.
Another major challenge is the threat of the unknown – like disappearances. Freelance journalist Azory Gwanda disappeared in 2017. His wife said his disappearance may be linked to his reporting on killings in Tanzania’s coastal region. The two members of the CPJ Africa programme team who were recently detained and interrogated said they were questioned about their interest in Gwanda’s case.
Journalists have told us that they self-censor out of fear and many believe they are under physical and digital government surveillance. Because of this the public is not properly informed and the country’s real stories are not being told.
What can be done to improve the situation?
The degradation of press freedom in Tanzania need not continue. This is why local and international voices have come together in an attempt to put pressure on the government and advocate for change.
In May 2018, 65 civil society organisations from around the world wrote an open letter to President Magufuli, calling for him to address the rapid decline in press freedom and human rights in his country.
The letter called for the reopening of banned outlets and a halt to interference in their operations; legal reform to guarantee freedom of expression and the media; and investigations into physical attacks against journalists, including those who are critical of the government.
Three months later, 29 organisations wrote another letter to the UN Human Rights Council, urging action on deteriorating press freedom in Tanzania.
Meaningful improvements for press freedom in Tanzania remain elusive. But this solidarity between local and international journalists and rights groups is crucial in the campaign to end sedition and insult laws, and to bring about legal reforms.
It’s also important that there are credible investigations and public accounting on the fate of journalists, like Gwanda. This would indicate at least some appreciation for the pain his disappearance has caused his family and the corrosive effect that apathy toward journalists’ safety has on press freedom.
From the 2016 decision that ended live coverage of parliamentary proceedings, to the overt intimidation of the CPJ team in late 2018, Tanzanian authorities have used their power to limit freedom of the press and accountability to the public. These same authorities have the power to reverse this trend and improve conditions for journalists in their country.