BY AMBROSE GAHENE
In what appears to be a sigh of relief to media freedom in the East African (EAC) Region, the new Tanzanian female President, Samia Hassan Suluhu, in her new sweeping socio economic and political changes, has ordered the Information Ministry to open up media space, for all media houses and online media outlets, which had been closed down by late President John Pombe Magufuli Government.
In her speech quoted by local and international media houses, President Suluhu in addition, appointed a task force to advise her Government on how to go about combating COVID 19 Pandemic.
“We cannot live as an Island in the midst of this COVID 19 Pandemic. We need to work with medical experts to find a remedy to this problem”, she was quoted by BBC Swahili live broadcast, on Tuesday. She also appointed a special envoy to oversee and strengthen the East African cross border trade by ensuring Tanzania adheres to the respect of abolition of Non-Tariff barriers.
The move was a huge statement that could define her pol- icy towards press freedom and freedom of expression. The Legal and Human Rights Centre (LHRC) and Tanzania Editors’ Forum (TEF) were quick to express their optimism over President Hassan’s governance approach.
“For several years now there have been serious complaints about the narrowing civic space and media freedom in Tanzania. This was being done in violation of the country’s Constitution, particularly, Article 18 which gives people the right to receive and disseminate information,” LHRC’s executive director Anna Tenga said in a press release.
She urged the government to conduct immediate amend- ments of the existing Media Service Act of 2016 with a view to getting rid of provisions that provide loopholes for certain individuals to suppress freedom of expression.
And, acting TEF chairman Deodatus Balile said President Hassan’s statement has come at the right time when most journalists were in poor economic conditions due to the impromptu bans on newsrooms and online television stations.
“This is quite consoling….President Hassan’s stand on the rule of law is also remarkable, particularly, when she warned that media houses must abide with the laws and regulations,” he said.
The secretary general of Journalist Workers Union Tanzania (Jowuta), Mr Seleman Msuya, said a majority of journalists were jobless due to the bans on media houses. Speaking during the swearing-in ceremony for permanent secretaries, their deputies and heads of some government institutions, President Hassan said: “I’m told you revoked licences of some media outlets, including some online television stations. You should lift the ban but tell them to follow the law and government guidelines”.
She said by lifting the ban on media outlets, the world will no longer regard Tanzania as a country that unnecessarily attacks press freedom.
“But make sure that whoever is given a go ahead to operate a media company does follow the laws of the land,” she said. The regulations, she said, must be open and punishments issued by authorities must be in line with the specified offence.
“You must not ban just because you have the power to do so… Lift the bans but make sure they follow the government’s regulations and guidelines,” she said.
Tanzania Media Services Act of 2016 gives officials powers to shut down media organizations that violate their licenses by confiscating printing machines. President Samia’s stance is a complete shift from that of her predecessor, Dr John Magufuli, who was on record as having publicly warned newspapers in 2017.
Speaking during a public rally in Shinyanga in January 2017, Dr Magufuli said the “days were numbered” for newspa- pers he deemed to incite dissent.
“We will not allow Tanzania to be a dump yard for inciting (newspaper) content. This will not happen under my admin- istration,” he said in January 2017, accusing two newspapers, which he did not name, of seeking to cause trouble.
“Whenever you read them, they are full of inciting content … their days are numbered,” he said.
The statement sent jitters down the spines of a number of media outlets, resulting in self-censorship among practitioners.
It was in the same line of thinking that in March 2019 The Citizen was suspended for seven days after publishing a story that showed the shilling as depreciating against the United States dollar.
In the eyes and thinking of authorities at the Information ministry, the story was bad enough to warrant a seven- day suspension.
Similarly, in 2017, authorities banned four newspapers for what they termed as “dissemination of false information” and “threatening national security.” Mawio was banned after publishing an article that linked former presidents to contro- versial mining contracts while Tanzania Daima was banned for what authorities termed as “continuous publication of false information” after reporting.
Mwanahalisi was banned for two years after it published an article that compared Dr Magufuli with opposition politician, Tundu Lissu while Raia Mwema was banned following the publication of an article titled “Magufuli presidency likely to fail.”
On April 16, 2020, Tanzania Communications Regulatory Authority banned Mwananchi from publishing online for six months. It was also slapped with a Sh5 million fine for allegedly publishing false news. On June 23, The Information Services Department, which registers print media outlets, announced a revocation of Tan- zania Daima’s distribution and publication license as of June 24.