Tanzania: President Samia has lifted a ban on four newspapers, but is she doing enough?

By Abdul Halim, in Dar es Salaam
Posted on Wednesday, 16 February 2022 19:36

President Samia Suluhu Hassan
Samia Suluhu Hassan, President of Tanzania, attends the UN Climate Change Conference (COP26) in Glasgow, Scotland, Britain, November 2, 2021. REUTERS/Hannah McKay/Pool

Tanzania has announced the lifting of a ban that had been imposed by the late President John Pombe Magufuli on four newspapers. The move by the government of President Samia Suluhu Hassan, who took office nearly a year go, has been welcomed, but how much has really changed given draconian laws from Magufuli's time are still in place.

Information and communication minister Nape Nnauye issued new publishing licences to Mawio, Mwanahalisi, Mseto and Tanzania Daima newspapers.

Speaking during a meeting with editors on Thursday 10 February, the minister said the licences were restored on the order of the president as part of her promise to uphold press freedom. “[…] the government [intends] to have a fresh start with journalists [and] today we are starting a new chapter. Let’s do our work while maintaining professional ethics.”

Tanzania Daima is owned by the family of opposition leader Freeman Mbowe, who has been in custody on terrorism-related charges since July 2021. Mawio, Mwanahalisi and Mseto are owned by a veteran journalist, Saed Kubenea.

Salome Kitomari from the Media Institute of Southern Africa in Tanzania (MISA-TAN), an organisation that defends freedom of expression, welcomes the news, but says she hopes to see the media law amended. “It is good to see the minister realising some challenges in media law. The government needs to work on this to make sure journalists operate freely while discharging their duties.”

Is it a crime to criticise the government?

Last year, after assuming office, President Samia said she wanted to establish a new chapter with the media that had been under a severe crackdown under her predecessor. However, on 5 September 2021, her government suspended Raia Mwema newspaper for 30 days after it linked the gunman, who killed four people, to the ruling party Chama Cha Mapinduzi (CCM).

Meanwhile, Uhuru, the ruling party newspaper, was suspended for one week after publishing a story about Samia saying she would not seek another term in the 2025 general elections.

We cannot live in a country where criticising the government becomes criminal.

Ally Saleh Alberto, a former BBC Journalist and former MP for Malindi Constituency, tells The Africa Report that he is concerned by the government’s recent move.

“Those are the same people who [silenced] the media [during] what the minister said was a difficult moment. In fact, […] we should not have a law that gives power to the authority to suspend newspapers. If the government is not happy with something, it should go to court instead of suspending newspapers. We cannot live in a country where criticising the government becomes criminal,” he says.

What is the situation now?

The administration of the late Magufuli was internationally criticised for muzzling the press after suspending licences and imposing heavy fines.

When President Samia took office on 19 March 2021, she pledged to support freedom of expression and to undo previous policies that had been implemented by Magufuli, such as the lack of action in containing Covid-19.

Last year, Zitto Kbawe, leader of opposition ACT Wazalendo party, said the situation had already changed because people were beginning to exercise their freedom of speech.

“The press now reports on matters that were untouchable during Magufuli’s presidency, but there have been no changes as far as repressive laws are concerned, and some security officials, such as police Chief Simon Sirro, can use the same [laws] they depended on from the previous administration,” Kbawe said.

Saed Kubenea, a veteran journalist and owner of Mwanahalisi and Mseto newspapers, says aside from lifting the ban on newspapers, all draconian laws should be repealed and the government must respect court judgements as it fights impunity.

If the government is bold enough, it should repel all draconian laws. Without doing so, it will be […] business as usual.

“[The ban on] nearly all the newspapers [lapsed] two or three years ago and we won court cases, but still we had not been allowed to publish. The government actions should go hand in hand with respecting court orders,” says Kubenea.

On 18 December 2018, High Court Judge Benhajj S. Masoud concluded that the suspension of Mawio, Mwanahalisi and Mseto newspapers was illegal and irrational, and done without a proper and fair hearing.

Political party vs state party

Despite elements of change on the part of President Samia, her government continues to maintain the status quo with regards to shutting down media houses, which are deemed to be publishing fake news or being too critical of the president and the ruling party.

“[The] CCM should see itself as a political party and not a state party. The treatment CCM is getting from the media should be the same with other political parties. In doing so, we will embrace the phrase of multiparty as stipulated in our constitution,” says Mohammed Mansour, a political analyst based in Zanzibar.

The other challenge is that CCM still maintains influence on national institutions. Despite President Samia’s effort to change Magufuli’s policies, the ruling party still maintains control of the media. Media organisations, such as Sahara Media Group, Channel 10, are controlled by loyalists of CCM, thereby rendering any criticism of the government difficult.

“CCM still controls the media system in our country, they control media networks as well as sensitive information that endangers its existence. I don’t think our journalists are capable of criticising the ruling party leadership,” says Mbaraka Salumu, a media expert.

Concrete changes

While the status of press freedom remains touch and go since Magufuli’s departure, Tanzania is now seeing scientists and doctors freely expressing their thoughts without fear of repercussions.

Shadrack Mwaibambe, the current chair of the Medical Association of Tanzania, says the situation has transformed under Samia. “When misinformation is encouraged by politicians, we as doctors should come out and speak freely and I think that is what the government need[s] in order to understand the situation,” he says in reference to the Covid-19 situation under Magufuli.

We passed through a very difficult moment, the situation now is okay […]

The late president had encouraged the use of steam inhalation and prayer as means to beat the virus, in stark contrast to the WHO recommendations, which include sharing data, observing social distance, wearing masks and getting vaccinated. Medical workers were even dismissed from their duties if they reported a case related to an outbreak or a pandemic.

The late Mwele Malecela, a top scientist and the then managing director of National institute of medical research (NIMR), was dismissed from his duties after announcing the Zika outbreak in the country.

“We thank the government for embracing professionalism and believing in experts. We passed through a very difficult moment, the situation now is okay […],” a top officer in the health ministry tells The Africa Report on condition of anonymity.

Is civil society getting a break?

Despite Tanzania having harsh laws that jeopardise the operations of civil societies, rights groups say they are witnessing minimal pushback when compared to the Magufuli era. Under his presidency, rights activists were often arrested and harassed.

Maria Sarungi, who has been leading the free speech campaign since the Magufuli era, saw the licence for her Kwanza TV, an online channel, revoked by the government. Although her licence has since been reinstated by the new administration, she is not yet convinced that she can resume operations.

Another victim of Magufuli era was Fatma Karume whose advocacy office was bombed by unknown assailants. “I cannot operate under the same laws that [were] used to revoke my channel. If the government is bold enough it should repel all draconian laws. Without doing so, it will be […] business as usual,” she says.

Bottom line

Despite government efforts to lift the ban on media and encourage freedom of expression, President Samia’s administration could go even further by amending draconian laws that still restrict freedom. They include the 2016 Media Service Act; the Information Act; the 2010 Postal, Telecommunication Act; and the 2015 Statistics Act.

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