Court ruling keeps Zanzibar independent paper closed

New York, November 30, 2004—The popular weekly Dira, Zanzibar’s only independent newspaper, remains shuttered after a court refused to reverse a one-year-old government ban. The Committee to Protect Journalists called on authorities to lift the “outrageous” ban, and repeal laws that allow the government to silence critical reporting.

The High Court on Tanzania’s semi-autonomous island ruled November 24 that Dira had violated registration procedures, rebuffing an effort by the newspaper to overturn the ban.
The court said Dira‘s registration was invalid because it had not been processed by a government-appointed board—an entity the newspaper said did not exist at the time.

Dira Editor Ali Nabwa told CPJ the ruling was “absurd,” but noted that the court may have left the door ajar for the newspaper to resume publication.

The court made no ruling on the Zanzibar government’s claim that the newspaper violated media ethics, and it invited Dira to re-apply for a license. The court said the government should examine the newspaper’s application in the spirit of good governance and the rule of law.

Nabwa told CPJ that the newspaper would re-apply for a license. If the government delays or refuses, he said, Dira would press its case with the Appeals Court based in mainland Tanzania.

“It is outrageous that Dira has been silenced for more than a year,” CPJ Executive Director Ann Cooper said. “The newspaper should be allowed to resume publication immediately. We also call on Zanzibar authorities to repeal the repressive 1988 law allowing the government to ban a newspaper without cause.”

On November 24, 2003, the Zanzibar government ordered the indefinite suspension of Dira, and four days later a complete ban. The government invoked a repressive 1988 law that empowers it to shutter a newspaper it deems a “threat to national security.” Announcing the ban, then-Minister of State Salim Juma Osman said the step was essential for the preservation of peace and harmony, according to Dira‘s Ally Saleh, who is also the BBC correspondent on Zanzibar.

Nabwa told CPJ at that time that Dira had criticized the government for “malpractice, corruption and abuse of power” and had tackled sensitive subjects such as Zanzibar’s union with Tanzania. Zanzibar joined a union with Tanganyika in 1964, forming the state of Tanzania.

This is the not the first difficulty that Dira has faced. On October 27, 2003, the Zanzibar High Court ordered the paper to pay US$660,000 in libel damages to the son and daughter of Zanzibar president Abeid Karume over articles alleging that they used family connections to buy state-owned businesses.