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Tanzania reconsiders harsh media laws

Tanzania’s Information Minister Harrison Mwakyembe said that his government is open to reviewing the controversial Media Services Act, which has been criticised by journalists and rights groups as a violation of the right to freedom of expression.

The minister has also committed to holding talks with stakeholders aimed at improving the environment for quality, independent journalism.

Mwakyembe’s comments came during a meeting in Dodoma with the Tanzania Editors Forum (TEF) and the International Press Institute (IPI). The IPI delegation was led by Khadija Patel, the editor-in-chief of the Mail & Guardian.

“Building a strong media sector involves not only raising professional capacities, but also creating an environment in which journalists are able to fully exercise their national role as the fourth estate alongside the executive, judicial and legislative branches,” said TEF and IPI in a joint statement.

“The spirit of openness expressed this week offers an opportunity for government officials, legislators, journalists, media owners and civil society to collaborate on a positive media framework in Tanzania that further develops the profession while protecting journalists’ rights.”

The space for independent journalism has shrunk considerably under President John Magufuli’s administration. As the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) notes: “Since 2015, journalists and bloggers in Tanzania, as well as human rights defenders and members of the political opposition, have been targeted with draconian legislation and both legal and extra-legal measures by the government. Under these conditions, freedom of expression, peaceful assembly, and association have been deeply eroded.”

In November, two members of CPJ’s Africa team — former M&G editor Angela Quintal and sub-Saharan Africa representative Muthoki Mumo — were illegally detained while on a fact-finding mission to the country.

This week, CPJ launched a campaign to bring attention to the case of Tanzanian freelance journalist Azory Gwanda. On April 5 it will be 500 days since Gwanda was last seen in public. His wife believes that his disappearance is linked to his investigation of a series of mysterious killings in the country’s coastal region.

Other incidents of concern include, but are certainly not limited to: the seven-day ban imposed in March on prominent newspaper The Citizen, in response to reporting perceived as critical of the government; repeated incidents of arbitrary detention or physical intimidation of journalists; and a raft of severe legislation, including the Media Services Act, which means that journalists risk jail time for reporting on subjects that the government doesn’t like.

On March 28, the East African Court of Justice found that several sections of the Media Services Act, including those on sedition, criminal defamation and false news publication, infringe on the rights to press freedom and freedom of expression. The court directed the Tanzanian government to “take necessary measures to bring the Act into compliance” with regional law.

“I’ve been encouraged by the openness of Tanzanian officials to discuss the viability of independent, quality journalism in the country,” said Patel. “I am, however, concerned that press freedom is under systematic threat and urgent steps must be taken to address it.”

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Simon Allison
Simon Allison
Simon Allison is the Africa editor of the Mail & Guardian, and the founding editor-in-chief of The Continent. He is a 2021 Young Africa Leadership Initiative fellow.

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