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People are seen in Namanga, Tanzania, on March 16, 2020. Tanzanian authorities recently suspnded the Mwananchi newspaper from publishing online for six months over a COVID-19 report. (AFP/Filbert Rweyemamu)

Tanzanian newspaper banned from publishing online for 6 months over COVID-19 report

May 11, 2020 1:55 PM ET

On April 16, 2020, Tanzania’s communications regulator banned the privately owned Mwananchi newspaper from publishing online for six months and fined it five million Tanzanian shillings ($2,173) for allegedly publishing false news, according to a public notice by the regulator and a report by the newspaper’s sister publication, The Citizen.

The Tanzania Communications Regulatory Authority, through its Content Committee, alleged that the newspaper published false and misleading news on its social media platforms on April 13, violating the country’s 2018 online content regulations, according to the notice.

Mwananchi’s website currently displays an error stating “We are unavailable,” and the paper’s Twitter account has not made any new posts since April 16. Mwananchi has continued its print edition; several people in Tanzania sent CPJ images of the latest issues of the newspaper.

Neither the official notice nor The Citizen identified which April 13 report sparked the suspension. However, two journalists and an activist familiar with the matter, all of whom spoke to CPJ anonymously, citing fear for their safety and their jobs, said that the suspension was connected to a video posted online by the newspaper showing President John Magufuli in a fish market.

All three people said that the video was construed as implying that Magufuli was acting imprudently amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

On April 13, Mwananchi posted an apology to its Twitter page, saying that the video was old and had been published erroneously, and that the company would take action against those responsible.

In its notice, the regulatory authority said that it summoned the paper on April 15, and said that the paper’s representatives admitted that they had contravened the online content regulations.

In 2019, The Citizen was hit with a seven-day publication ban, also on allegations of publishing false news, according to CPJ reporting from the time.

Azory Gwanda, a freelance journalist whose content was published by Mwananchi, has been missing since 2017, and there has been no credible investigation into his case, according to CPJ research.

In a telephone interview on May 8, Semu Mwakyanjala, the corporate communications head of the Tanzania Communications Regulatory Authority, declined to comment on the Mwananchi case and said that questions should be channeled through an official email address. CPJ emailed that address but did not receive any response.