Reports have it that about seven members of Parliament and two members of the House of Representatives are listed to travel to India in due course, accompanied by two members of the Media Council of Tanzania (MCT), to study the way the Freedom of Information Act operates there.
A statement issued by MCT executive secretary Kajubi Mukajanga said the MPs would seek to examine how India has combined security fears with the right of information, as this is often the fear cited in higher echelons of this or previous governments when freedom of information is tabled. It is a loathing, an allergy.
What was interesting was the timing of this initiative, notably given an auxiliary remark in the statement that the study is designed to see where safeguards can be placed in the Freedom of Information Bill that the statement said was being prepared, or drafted.
As a matter of fact, there was already a draft bill that was prepared following several years of on-and-off negotiations with the government on the format of the Bill, supposed to have been tabled last year, but came to naught.
The statement intimated that the government intends to table the Bill in future sessions of the National Assembly. Even as coincidences are not a strange phenomenon in public life, what hit observers in the face was the fact that this initiative comes in the wake of the open air and filmed killing of television journalist Daudi Mwangosi as he covered a Chadema branch opening in a village, not in Iringa municipality.
The bizarre shooting sent shock waves around as to the penchant for violence from the police force, completely at variance with their duty of offering protection for political rallies, not to decide who gathers or when, unless a clearly valid reason exists for cautioning on a meeting. The census was an insufficient cause, especially as the ruling party held rallies or meetings in a by-election venue in Zanzibar.
Whether or not these parameters constitute an aspect of study for the parliamentary team set to visit India is another matter, as in India no single party holds sway on the state, and negative relations with the police arise from political violence, fomented by individuals or groups.
While there is a measure of that sort of violence in Tanzania, the more factual impediment to freedom of information and indeed to insecurity in political meetings is violence from above, when the police seek to make the political atmosphere safe enough for CCM. It is the old idea of failing in force of argument, opting for argument of force.
That is why it is a bit interesting to try to map out what precisely the parliamentarians wish to study in India, for the specified purpose is to combine security fears on the part of the government, with legitimate need for real freedom to be informed.
The point is what sort of security fears has the Indian freedom of information regime, or relevant legislation taken into account and provided for definite safeguards, and how far such a model or way of doing things could be sufficient here. Are there kindred fears or are they too divergent?
On the basis of a strict definition of media and security concerns, the Indian model could indeed be one capable of helping Tanzania complete the ‘architecture’ for a Freedom of Information Act that has adequate or viable safeguards in that direction. Yet there are clear divergences of intentionality that are likely to be noticed in what India has placed in the way of safeguards and what the government actually wants here, though it may not be in a position to declare as much, that is, spell out its intentions for all to hear. Still, the profound inability to cultivate an ethic of penchant for unlawfulness is a problem here.
When the tendency to break the law is an activity of organized groups or spontaneous actions of occasion-based activism or bursts of violence, that can credibly be termed a police problem.
But when the violence stems from upper echelons of a political party which says it seeks to make the country ungovernable - or a police stratagem of making meetings of that political party ‘un-attendable’ – it becomes a systemic problem where the very exercise of democracy is put into peril. Strategies of seeking to paralyse a country, not because of a general strike at a professional or general level of employees demanding higher wages are contrary to the democratic process, as they foment violence.
In a way it is the political attitude that it tied up with the information regime, for instance what happened to the doctors’ strike leader Dr Stephen Ulimboka, and the banning of a weekly newspaper which was on the trail of pursuing his abductors, to clear public effect.
It means in analytical terms that so long as the state has to resort to that sort of action as part of its governance menu, it can’t also have a freedom of information legislation since it would undermine its ability to manage situations of that sort, placing the regime in peril. That is what is at stake; in India the government has no need to harm strike leaders.
Put differently, there are two fairly distinct senses of security which are visible in a clearly liberal democratic setting as in India, and a non-liberal quasi-democratic setting as in Tanzania, where we don’t have a multiparty democracy as yet, but rather a one-party regime that tolerates other parties to operate, and even have sizeable number of seats in the legislature. What the regime cannot accommodate is clear danger to its security, as tied up with the party in power, firstly because the sociopolitical system is not reformed enough for those who sit in authority in public agencies, to think of actual regime change.
It is unclear if the MPs’ and Representatives’ tour of India shall include a deep look at the Indian political system to find out why, despite being a ‘developing country’ it has been able to sustain a liberal democratic regime with regular changes of governing parties.
It would appear that, keeping with the usual legalistic definition of issues, one merely checks how the Indian version of our Newspaper Act operates, that is who registers a paper, whether it can be banned, and if security issues come up. It isn’t the polity as such.
That is why it is a little vague how the MPs seek to fit the Indian freedom of information scenario unto the Tanzanian scene, given the divergence of sociopolitical regimes.
India has usually not had a problem with one party refusing to hand the reins of government to another party when it wins an election, and unlike Pakistan, the military has never once intervened in Indian politics. The key issue isn’t what the law states but the social fabric.
What the MPs could possibly discover, in case they will have wide ranging discussion not just with Indian colleagues and media practitioners but perhaps constitutionalists as well, is that there is a difference between the security of a nation and that of a specific government in office.
When the security of the state is identified with non-interference from outside, that is, enemies bent on destabilizing the country for their own ‘hegemonic’ purposes as they often say in China, freedom of information is usually consonant with that sort of security concern.
The United States has not just passed a series of draconian legislation not on the media but on civic life as a whole, like listening into telephone conversations, impromptu searches, indefinite detention of ‘enemy combatants’ and the rest, without for once putting freedom of information in peril, or gagging the media, etc.
Our inability to enact a Freedom of Information Bill is not based on dangers that are posed to national security in the wider sense of the term but in its narrower sense, as regime security in the context of an existing government.
While India seeks to stem foreign danger, the chief concern of our media laws is to stem local dangers for stability of the regime in place, in the sense of a political party identified with the destiny of the country, more or less.
The reason for this concern isn’t the love for CCM or huge mistrust of opposition, but the control that the government exercises on land, principal economic activities and organizations thereof, most sources of commercial tendering or contractual activity, such that a loss of power is catastrophic to a large portion of the upper classes.