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Citizenry and press freedom: Case of dual carriageway

8th May 2013
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Editor Absalom admitted to hospital in Dar es Salaam after being attacked recently. (File photo)

The most recent annual international report on the extent of freedom that journalists, media outlets and the citizenry enjoy has brought Tanzania in the limelight.

The 2013 World Press Freedom Index, which was released recently by Reporters Without Borders, shows that press freedom shrunk considerably in Tanzania last year. The country ranked number 70 out of the 179 countries surveyed, representing a drop of 36 places from the previous year.

The findings come at a time when progressive media stakeholders are relentlessly pressing the government to repeal oppressive media laws and legislate for decent and friendly ones.

Of particular importance about the findings is the fact that they portray the situation on the ground and address the demand by media stakeholders for the enactment of a Right to Information law and a Media Services Act.

The media industry and the laws governing it have a long history in Tanzania. From the days of colonial Tanganyika to date, the country has never had laws that guarantee press freedom.

The laws governing the operations of the media during the German and British colonial administrations were drafted specifically to tame the media, reducing them to a propaganda tool of the colonial regimes.

The Germans, for instance, enacted the East Africa Newspaper Decree of 1912 to control the newspaper industry. Under this law, it was a criminal offence for journalists to participate in any event that led or amounted to violation of the law.
The advent of the British in Tanganyika did not change the role of the media for, which was essentially to serve the interests of the colonial masters.

The Penal Code of 1920 and the Newspaper Ordinance of 1928, pieces of legislation governing the media during British rule, criminalised the publication of false or alarmist statements likely to subject the public to fear.

Founding President Mwalimu Julius Nyerere is among the Tanganyikans subjected to this draconian law when, in his titular capacity as editor of Sauti ya Tanu (Voice of Tanu) newspaper, he was charged with sedition in 1958.

He was found guilty and sentenced to six months in jail or a fine of 150 pound sterling. He paid the fine. A number of other local journalists were later also charged with sedition.

After independence some provisions of these colonial laws were retained on the statute books or altogether new but still unfriendly media laws were enacted altogether.

In general the legal regime is not all that friendly to the media in Tanzania. The government has continued to adopt policies and make laws that make the work of journalists and media outlets difficult.

A number of newspapers have been suspended or banned, while the number of cases of police brutality against journalists has kept rising.

The latest victim of these draconian laws is the Kiswahili weekly investigative newspaper MwanaHalisi, which was banned last year allegedly for publishing seditious materials. The government has refused to lift the ban despite protests by media stakeholders.

The Newspapers Act (1976), one of the oppressive laws that media stakeholders want repealed, gives the minister in charge of the Information portfolio powers to prohibit the publication of any newspaper if he or she believes doing so is in the public interest or in the interest of peace and good order.

Alongside giving the minister powers to ban or suspend publications, the Act contains provisions on sedition – enacted primarily to deal with presumed dissidents during the colonial era. The law makes defamation a criminal offence punishable by jail sentence of up to two years, and it invocation has seen a number of journalists find themselves in trouble.

Three media practitioners – Absalom Kibanda, Theophil Makunga and Samson Mwigamba – are facing sedition charges under this law. They were initially charged (under the Penal Code) with inciting soldiers to revolt before the charges were amended and placed under the Newspapers Act. The case is pending in a Dar es Salaam court.

The absence of decent media laws has provided a nourishing environment for police and other state agencies to attack media personnel with relative impunity. Journalists have on a number of occasions been harassed or beaten by police or other security agencies.

The latest examples of such brutality include the killing of Channel Ten journalist David Mwangosi, who died in police hands in Iringa Region in September last year while covering a political event organised by the opposition Chama cha Demokrasia na Maendeleo (Chadema). Kigoma-based radio presenter Issa Ngumba was meanwhile found dead in a forest in late last year.

More recently, New Habari (2006) Limited group managing editor and Tanzania Editors Forum chairman Absalom Kibanda was kidnapped by people yet to be identified outside his Dar es Salaam residence. He was subjected to such severe beating that he ended up with serious injuries, including a damaged eye, and was flown to South Africa for specialised treatment.

Much as the two incidents might not be connected to police or other state security agencies, observers see them as translating into hints sending a strong message to the media.

All this explains why the country needs better media laws that would promote press freedom, which is needed in any democratic society, while also safeguarding journalists innocently going about their work.

At least 17 pieces of legislation ought to be repealed, followed by the enactment of civilised ones, or the semblance of press freedom enshrined in the country’s constitution will continue to be under siege.

The run-up to the enactment of new media laws initiated by the government in 2006 remains stalled. This is after media stakeholders rejected the government-proposed bill on the Freedom of Information Act, saying it was hopelessly flawed. Also stalled is the intensive review the draft national media policy.

After rejecting the bill, media stakeholders prepared two alternative bills – Right to Information and Media Services – which, if adopted, will enhance enjoyment of access to and freedom of information.
The alternative bills, both long presented to the government, in part seek to ease collection of news from government and other official sources by compelling public offices to provide information and protect both journalists and whistleblowers.

The government has promised to table the bills this (2013/2014) financial year, but this will likely keep the citizenry waiting for an indefinitely long period, unsure about what could be the extent to which the government would go in accommodating provisions contained in the alternative bills.

Tanzania has joined the Open Government Partnership (OGP) Initiative, a new multilateral drive aimed at promoting transparency, empowering citizens, fighting corruption and strengthening good governance.

None of these can be attained in a country embraces oppressive media laws, where the citizens have serious problems accessing information.

Tanzania qualified to join the Initiative on the strength of a promise to promote transparency and make the government more open – in part by providing relevant information to its citizens with greater ease.

The kind of media laws the government would wish to have in place would thus have to reflect its commitment to and seriousness in promoting transparency, strengthening good governance and achieving other OGP objectives.

Constitutional and Legal Affairs minister Mathias Chikawe announced an appeasement of sorts in February, assuring the Coalition on the Right to Information that the government was committed to ensuring that the Freedom of Information (FOI) law was enacted not beyond year-end – under the aegis of OGP. The coalition is chaired by the Media Council of Tanzania (MCT).

FOI is not about providing privileges to media practitioners; rather it aims at enabling the citizenry to access information people ought to know but until now hoarded by the government for pretexts that include “confidentiality”.

For instance, public finances are always matters of immense public interest because the government’s annual budgets have a direct bearing on the country’s development, and it is a basic right for taxpayers and other citizens to know how much planned taxes would bite as well as the direction public spending would move under the next budget.

But much as we believe that the government will this time keep its word on the enactment of decent media and FOI laws, a recent contemplation by the office of the National Assembly Speaker of the enactment of a law banning live coverage of parliamentary proceedings came as shocking precedent.

Even merely recommending such a weird move at this time when the whole world is talking about the need for enhanced transparency and openness in the running of public affairs is, to say the least, pushing the country thousands of years back into history.

Promoting good governance, enhancing democracy and accountability, intensifying the war on corruption and mismanagement of public funds – the list goes on and on – all depend on whether we have robust, independent and free media leading to the growth of an informed society.

The country’s OGP membership will only be meaningful and have the desired impact if we get rid of all impediments to the freedom of the press and freedom of expression by enacting media laws that make sense in this era of science, technology and globalisation. The time to act is now.

It is chiefly for this reason that the MCT Think Tank on Freedom of Expression and Media Issues will be conducting a one-day high-profile conference on the escalation of state violence and its impact on citizens’ rights.

Issues around which deliberations will revolve include media gagging, the use of existing laws in curtailing press freedom and the safety of journalists, as well the impunity with which some government agencies at times violate the laws they are both supposed and expect to observe.

The event takes place in Dar es Salaam May 14 and is expected to draw 200 delegates from across the country and serve as a pad from which citizens from all walks of life will share experiences mainly relating to freedom of the media and of expression as well as threats against media practitioners.

Conference delegates are also expected to revisit salient issues raised during this year’s World Press Freedom Day celebrations held in Arusha on May 3, the global theme being ‘Safe to Speak: Securing Freedom of Expression in All Media’.

lArticle published courtesy of Media Council of Tanzania. 

SOURCE: THE GUARDIAN