Press freedom in Tanzania has drifted into an unprecedented crisis under Magufuli’s regime. According to the Tanzania Editors Forum (TEF), at least five newspapers and two radio stations have been suspended for periods ranging from three to 36 months on pretexts including “false information”, “sedition” and “threatening national security”. One paper decided to suspend publication itself after publishing a story it feared might irritate officials.There have also been more violent incidences of harassment.In March 2017, Dar es Salaam Regional Commissioner Paul Makonda entered the headquarters of Clouds Media with six armed men, reportedly to pressure the staff to air a video undermining a popular local pastor critical of the commissioner. A probe team by then-Minister of Information Nape Nnauye concluded that Makonda had broken the law. What followed was indicative: Nnauye was sacked by President Magufuli, and his replacement, incumbent Minister Harrison Mwakyembe, dismissed the probe team’s recommendations, which included having the commissioner apologize to the media outlet.
Another alarming incident took place in November 2017 when journalist Azory Gwanda was reported missing by his wife in Kibiti district, south of Dar es Salaam.
He has not been seen since, dead or alive.
Before his disappearance, Gwanda had reported on the high murder rate in the district.
Tanzanian security authorities have claimed the matter is still under investigation.
Just last week, two journalists were reportedly attacked and beaten by police officers in separate incidents in Tanzania.
Sillas Mbise, a Wapo Radio sports journalist, was attacked at a football match in Dar es Salaam, while Tanzania Daima journalist Sitta Tuma was beaten after taking photographs at a political rally in Mara Region.
The Tanzania Human Rights Defenders Coalition has recorded several other attacks on journalists over the past few years, including arbitrary arrests and detentions of journalists because of their reporting on politics, the police or demonstrations.
Deodatus Balile, the TEF’s acting chairman, told IPI that these recent incidents had resulted in growing self-censorship among journalists.“Due to the number of threats, journalists start to censor themselves”, Balile said.
New media laws used to curtail press freedomThe crackdown on press freedom in Tanzania is being facilitated by a legal framework that has become increasingly unfriendly under Magufuli’s regime.Tanzania’s constitution guarantees freedom of speech but does not explicitly mention press freedom.
Journalists say this distinction has allowed the country’s authorities to enact laws that curtail press freedom on the pretext of national security and the “public interest”.
One of the most troubling examples is the Media Services Act, which was signed by Magufuli in November 2016 to replace the Newspaper Act of 1976.
The Media Services Act concentrates power over media in the hands of the government.
The minister of information is responsible for licensing print media annually and is able to prohibit importation of publications contrary to the public interest and order private media houses to report on issues “of national importance”.
The law does not define “public interest” or “national importance”, leaving wide room for interpretation.Under the new law, the government now also holds de facto control over two regulatory bodies: the Journalists Accreditation Board and the Independent Media Council, which is responsible for upholding ethical and professional standards. All practising journalists in Tanzania must obtain Board accreditation and be members of the Media Council.
Both bodies are officially independent, but their board members are appointed by and are accountable to the minister of information.
IPI previously expressed concern over the Media Services Act in 2016 for its potential threat to press freedom and its failure to meet international standards.
On that occasion, IPI also urged the Tanzanian Parliament to abolish licensing requirements for journalists, newspapers, social media and broadcast media, as well as to repeal criminal defamation laws.
The TEF and other media stakeholders have also raised concerns over online media regulations introduced in March 2018.
The Electronic and Postal Communications (Online Content) Regulations require all bloggers as well as online radio and television streaming services to apply for a license and to pay a fee up to $900. In reality, however, the cost is even higher because applicants must first establish a company in order to apply for a license.
Per capita income in Tanzania was slightly below $900 a year in 2016.
These regulations also give a quasi-independent government body, the Tanzania Communications Regulatory Authority, the ability to revoke a permit if a site publishes content that “causes annoyance” or leads to “public disorder”, without providing any right to appeal or request judicial review of takedown orders.
Anonymous use of the Internet is now essentially prohibited as well. Failure to comply with the regulations may lead to heavy fines and to imprisonment for a minimum period of 12 months.
Media stakeholders fear that the regulations will further restrict freedom of expression, citizens’ right to privacy and the work of whistleblowers and investigative journalists.