President John Magufuli, pictured after winning Tanzania's election last year. His party has halted the live coverage of parliament. (Reuters/Emmanuel Herman)
President John Magufuli, pictured after winning Tanzania's election last year. His party has halted the live coverage of parliament. (Reuters/Emmanuel Herman)

Tanzania cuts live parliamentary coverage, ending vital news source for citizens

On April 19, the live coverage of proceedings in the Tanzanian parliament ended as a government decision to halt the service went into effect. The move, announced by Information Minister Nape Nnauye in January, has led to protests from the opposition party and journalists’ groups, who said they view the decision to stop live broadcasts of parliamentary debates as tantamount to censorship.

When Nnauye announced details of the ban in Parliament on January 27, he said that the live broadcast of parliamentary proceedings by the state broadcaster, Tanzania Broadcasting Corporation, cost too much, according to news accounts. At a press conference on February 2, Nnauye said that the service cost the state broadcaster $2.1 million a year. Opposition parties dismissed the argument that the service was halted because of costs and offered to pay for the service, but their offer was rejected the media reported.

Live broadcasts of parliamentary proceedings, which air for about four hours a day while parliament is in session, are popular in Tanzania. In a country where the ruling party has held power for more than half a century, the broadcasts are viewed as a rare outlet where the relatively small but lively opposition can hold the government to account and citizens get an unvarnished version of government matters being discussed by parliamentarians.

Instead of a full broadcast of proceedings, the parliament’s press team will distribute selected highlights to TV stations at the close of a day’s session, according to press accounts.

Absalom Kibanda, an editor with the independent New Habari newspaper and a former chairman of the Tanzania Editors Forum, told CPJ there was little trust that selected highlights would accurately reflect the proceedings. He said that the government’s move was widely viewed as an attempt to stifle press freedom.

“Live broadcast of parliamentary proceedings is one of the most important avenues through which the people can see their elected representatives holding cabinet ministers and government officials to account. The government has however never been comfortable with this and has tried to ban the broadcasts several times before, and we are very disappointed that they have carried through with their threats this time,” he said.

At a news conference about the decision on April 24, Theophil Makunga, chairman of the Tanzania Editors Forum, said, “We condemn the decision for it has denied people their rights to information … To prohibit cameras in the debating chamber is an open strategy to violate freedom of press.”

Ayub Rioba, the managing director of the Tanzania Broadcasting Corporation, which provided the live feed, did not immediately respond to CPJ’s request for comment.

The BBC reported that since the coverage was halted members of parliament have been recording parliamentary debates on their mobile phones and uploading the footage to social media. A petition has also been set up on the social causes website, urging the government to reverse the decision.

Parliament, which is dominated by the ruling party Chama Cha Mapinduzi (Party of the Revolution), has tried to halt the service before. In February 2013, it announced that live broadcasts would be replaced with footage recorded and edited by parliamentary authorities, according to press accounts. Officials backtracked after protests by journalist groups, including the Media Council of Tanzania. On that occasion, the cost of the service was not cited as an issue.

Although President John Magufuli, who came into office in October 2015, and his administration have been praised for its anti-corruption drive, the government has taken measures to limit media freedom. CPJ reported in January on the closure of a weekly Swahili-language newspaper, Mawio, which was shut down after it reported on the political crisis in the Tanzanian archipelago of Zanzibar. In March, a journalist was abducted and beaten by unknown assailants while reporting on an election in Zanzibar, which was boycotted by the opposition.

By regional standards, Tanzania’s press is relatively free but the new government has not taken steps to repeal restrictive media laws including the Statistics Act endorsed in 2015, which proposes penalties for any journalist publishing inaccurate “unofficial” data, according to news reports.

Neville Meena, secretary of the Tanzania Editors Forum, said that editors were seeking a meeting with parliamentary authorities to seek to reverse the decision halting live broadcasts.