/ 4 October 2013

Free media under siege in Tanzania

Tanzania has accused newspapers of sowing dissent.
Tanzania has accused newspapers of sowing dissent.

The government of Tanzania has continued its crackdown on the country's independent media, this time banning two newspapers for publishing what it called seditious stories.

In an announcement on September 28, the Tanzania information services department said Mwananchi (Swahili for The Citizen) and Mtanzania (The Tanzanian) had published stories it deemed would cause hatred between the government and citizens.

Mtanzania, which is owned by New Habari Corporation – a company associated with Rostam Aziz, a politician and former treasurer of the ruling party, Chama Cha Mapinduzi (CCM) – cannot publish for 90 days.

Mwananchi, Tanzania's biggest newspaper, owned by Mwananchi Communication, a subsidiary of the Nairobi-based Nation Media Group (NMG), will not be allowed to publish for two weeks.

Uganda earlier this year banned another NMG-owned newspaper, Monitor, for publishing what it called "inciting" information.

The government said in its announcement that the papers' kind of journalism was threatening the country's peace and tranquillity.

In its gazetted notice, number 333 of September 27 2013, the government said Mwananchi published, in July this year, a story revealing new salary structures for public servants. It said the writer quoted a document marked "confidential", which should not have been published.

Mwananchi also published a story under the headline "Muslims pray under tight security." The story, according to the government, was published with a photograph of a police dog, which, the government said, was an insult to Muslims and was aimed at inciting hatred between the police and Muslims.

"The police were not accompanied with dogs to mosques on that day … government and the police respect other peoples' faith and so it can't take dogs [to] a place of worship; the newspaper simply wanted the Muslim to hate their government."

According to the statement, signed by the director of the information services department, Assah Mwambene, Mtanzania has allegedly been publishing emotive stories, implying the government was slow in combating terrorist attacks, especially those facing journalists.

"For instance," he said, "Mtanzania published stories with headlines like 'Bloody Presidency' in the March 20 2013 edition and 'A revolution is inevitable' on September 27 2013, which are likely to endanger our national cohesion."

The ban has attracted fierce domestic criticism, with many accusing the government of using a draconian law long criticised by the media Zitto Kabwe, Kigoma North MP, said the banning of the papers was an act of cowardice.

"Banning newspapers won't deny the citizenry their rights to give their opinion and fight for the good cause … this is only strengthening them," he said. "You ban a newspaper for revealing new salaries. Is that wrong? Are people not supposed to know what public servants earn?"

He argued the government should be going to court if newspapers wrote stories it did not like.  

Julius Mtatiro, the deputy secretary general of the opposition Civic United Front for Tanzania Mainland, said the government was determined to block alternative opinions and that people would continue to air their views.

Shy-Rose Bhanji, a member of the East African Legislative Assembly from Tanzania, said the government was denting its international image by banning newspapers.

"The government should have used the Media Council of Tanzania, which is there to adjudicate any misunderstandings, or go to court than jumping to ban them … this is not good for our democracy," he said.

In July last year, the government banned the critical Swahili-language weekly MwanaHalisi indefinitely for allegedly publishing seditious articles.

The ban was imposed days after it published a series of articles concerning the kidnap and torture of Dr Steven Ulimboka. Unknown assailants kidnapped and beat Ulimboka on the outskirts of Dar es Salaam after he led a doctors' strike. The newspaper linked State House to his attack.

This year, the managing editor of the New Habari, Absalom Kibanda, who is also chairperson of the Tanzania Editors' Forum, was tortured by unknown people outside his house one night when he returned from his office. He lost an eye and some of his fingers were chopped off.

Tanzania is reviewing its Constitution and local civil society representatives and members of the media have called for the government to replace the 1976 Newspaper Act with a progressive media law that conforms to international human rights standards.

Sylivester Ernest is a 2013 winner of the David Astor Journalism Award. He is on attachment to the Mail & Guardian