Tanzania's new president, John Pombe Magufuli, right, and outgoing president, Jakaya Kikwete. Several of the country's journalists say they hope Magufuli will reform repressive press laws. (Reuters/Emmanuel Herman)
Tanzania's new president, John Pombe Magufuli, right, and outgoing president, Jakaya Kikwete. Several of the country's journalists say they hope Magufuli will reform repressive press laws. (Reuters/Emmanuel Herman)

Tanzania’s press wait to see if new president will reform troubling media laws

Elections in Tanzania passed smoothly in October, but several local journalists and a media lawyer told me the spectre of anti-press laws is casting a pall over critical reporting in the country and that hopes for legal reform under the newly elected President John Pombe Magufuli remain muted.

There were scattered reports of incidents of intimidation against journalists covering the elections. In late July, an official from the Chama Cha Mapinduzi ruling party in the southwest town of Kyela allegedly blocked journalists from covering a meeting and slapped and punched freelance journalist Benson Mwakalinga when he protested the lack of press access, according to human rights group East and Horn of Africa Human Rights Defenders Project. Assah Mwambene, the director of Information Services, did not respond to CPJ’s requests for comment.

In September, ruling party officials barred Peter Elias, a reporter for the privately owned newspaper Mwananchi, from joining the press entourage following Magufuli, allegedly because of his unfavourable coverage, news reports said. Officials told Neville Meena, chairman of the Tanzania Editors Forum, that the reporter repeatedly painted the ruling party in a bad light and could not partake in the press group with direct access to their electoral candidate, a decision the guild contested, news reports said.

In comparison to past incidents documented in CPJ’s special report on Tanzania in 2013, the authorities allowed the press to do its job. “We can actually partially thank the police for this,” said Kajubi Mukajanga, executive secretary of the Media Council of Tanzania, an independent media regulator. “This time round they showed more restraint allowing a calm atmosphere to prevail.”

While not physically targeted by authorities, the journalists with whom I spoke said they felt pressure from anti-press laws and electoral codes introduced ahead of the polls. “The anti-press laws passed this year were designed for the elections,” Mukajanga said. “They waved it in your face, to scare the press into silence, that was their purpose,” he said, referring to the ruling party. In March, the Statistics Act and Cybercrimes Act were passed with urgency and signed into law, according to James Marenga, a former editor and media lawyer. Under the Statistics Act anyone, including the media, publishing statistics on the Tanzanian government without approval from the National Bureau of Statistics could face fines of up to 10 million Tanzanian shillings (US$4,600) and a minimum one-year jail time. The ruling party has not yet responded to CPJ’s request for comment.

The Cybercrimes Act also sets strict guidelines for online activity, with a fine of up to 3 million Tanzanian shillings and a minimum six-month prison sentence for publishing any information that the government deems “deceptive, misleading or inaccurate,” according to a copy of the law in CPJ’s possession. “Now if you share images of people who forgot to wear clothes, or if you share lies on social media, or commit other acts deemed to be criminal, you could spend 10 years in jail,” journalist Joseph Warungu wrote in a blog for the BBC in October.

On September 1, the government announced enforcement of the Cybercrimes Act, providing police with broad powers to search and seize computers and intercept emails without warrant. In a sign of the broad scope of the law, police used it during the elections to raid an opposition party tallying center in the capital, Dar es Salaam, on October 25 and arrested eight staff, claiming the group had published inaccurate data on Facebook, Twitter, and the internal election management system, according to reports. No charges have yet been brought against the staff.

Police also raided the Dar es Salaam offices of the Tanzania Civil Society Consortium on Election Observation, a civil society group that monitored the elections, in late October, confiscating laptops and detaining staff under the same law, Benedict Ishabakaki, the legal protection officer of the Tanzanian Human Rights Defenders Coalition, told me. The police accused staff of collecting and sharing election results, Ishabakaki added, despite the consortium having permission from the National Election Commission to observe and monitor election campaigns across the country. CPJ has been unable to determine if any of the staff were charged.

“A lot of people will become criminals because of these kinds of laws,” said Maxence Melo, founder of Jamii Forums, Tanzania’s popular Swahili-language online social media platform. Melo said that since the law took effect on September 1, online traffic went down on Jamii, with fewer stories being shared, and that traffic only picked up after the elections.

Marenga said he thinks the laws were designed to temper the flow of social media during the election. “With these laws critics have been silenced somehow. No one is ready to get into trouble with the government simply because he or she wants to express themselves freely.”

In June, authorities announced stringent broadcasting rules for the election period. Under the rules, bloggers, SMS pollsters, and broadcasters were required to register with the state-run Tanzania Communications Regulatory Authority, comply with Tanzania’s laws governing the operation of electronic media, and ensure that information in blogs was accurate, factual, and balanced to all parties in the elections, according to reports.

Other media bills may shrink press freedom further if passed in their current form. Despite efforts by the Media Council of Tanzania to reform anti-press legislation to comply with Tanzania’s constitution that upholds freedom of expression, bills ostensibly designed to reform older anti-press laws could deteriorate conditions further. The Media Services Bill, for instance, was meant to replace the Tanzania News Agency Act and the 1976 Newspaper Act which, as CPJ has documented, has been used to shutter critical newspapers including MwanaHalisi in 2012 and the regional The East African in January this year. But the Media Services Bill would make it impossible to practice journalism without permission from a government-controlled regulatory body that can ban newspapers at will and issue fines and prison sentences for publishing anything deemed by officials as threatening to the interests of defense, public order, and safety, according to a review of the proposed law by the council.

The Access to Information Bill could also introduce greater challenges for journalists attempting to access information. Journalists who publish information from official institutions could face imprisonment if authorities consider the subject matter does not qualify as public interest, or that it has “infringed commercial interests” or even “significantly undermine the operations of the Tanzania Broadcasting [Association,]” according to a copy reviewed by CPJ. Media groups successfully lobbied lawmakers to withdraw both bills for more consultation in June. It is unknown when the proposed bills may be presented for review, Mukajanga said.

With a newly elected Magufuli just weeks into office, local journalists are playing a game of wait-and-see as to whether the president will reform these bills and other anti-press laws to allow greater press freedom and uphold Tanzania’s commitment to the U.S. government’s Open Government Partnership initiative, a multilateral effort to promote transparency. Magufuli’s initial pronouncements–curbing government excess and cancelling independence day celebrations–have earned him the praise of many, according to news reports. His actions have even generated a Twitter meme, “What would Magufuli do?” producing a string of tweets about resourceful, money-saving tips, news reports said. It remains to be seen whether his anti-corruption drive will manifest in respect for media freedom. “Magufuli is coming from the [Chama Cha Mapinduzi], the same ruling party which ran government since independence, can much really be expected on the media law reforms?” asked Marenga.