Dar es Salaam/Dodoma. Media stakeholders, academicians, politicians, MPs and religious leaders voiced their concern yesterday after the government banned two daily newspapers.
They spoke a day after the government announced that it had banned Mwananchi and Mtanzania for 14 and 90 days, respectively, for allegedly publishing classified information and seditious articles.
Commentators who spoke to The Citizen called for the repeal of draconian media laws to ensure press freedom and safeguard Tanzanians’ right to information.
Meanwhile, Mr Tido Mhando, Managing Director of Mwananchi Communications Limited, which publishes Mwananchi, said the newspaper did not have an ulterior motive when it published a story on new government salaries.
“We think that we played our role by informing the public about the new government salary structure, taking into consideration the fact that a few weeks earlier there had been similar changes for the private sector wages that were made public by the same government. We had good intentions of informing the public, and nothing else,” he said.
Media Council of Tanzania (MCT) Executive Secretary Kajubi Mukajanga said the government should understand that closing down media outlets was an assault on the democratic principle of freedom of expression.
“There are many ways to deal with errant media without affecting the audiences. The government should have alternative ways to deal with media when it thinks they have erred instead of banning newspapers.”
He added that MCT and Tanzania Human Rights Defenders Coalition (THRD Coalition) have for more than a decade been agitating for the review of laws that suppress freedom of expression.
“We have been struggling for a long time, but to no avail...media stakeholders should not leave this crusade to MCT or human rights activists alone. This should also involve media owners, editors and professionals,” Mr Mukajanga said.
Nipashe Managing Editor Jesse Kwayu condemned the government’s decision, saying it was a step backward in Tanzania’s endeavour to promote democracy. He said the Newspapers Act 1976 and National Security Act 1970 were outdated and incompatible with political pluralism.
Mr Kwayu also faulted the law which gives the Minister for Information powers to ban newspapers on a whim.
“Here we are talking about the government being the complainant, prosecutor, witness and judge, all rolled into one,” he said.
Veteran journalist Ndimara Tegambwage wondered why the government was reluctant to seek MCT’s intervention if it felt aggrieved in any way.
“Banning or deregistering a media outlet violates basic human rights. The government should seek redress through bodies such as MCT,” he said.
Open University of Tanzania lecturer Hamad Salim said the National Security Act of 1970 was a draconian piece of legislation in that it gave the government powers to take punitive action for the publication of information that is deemed classified. He said the Act should be repealed and replaced by legislation that takes human rights into consideration, adding that the law gives authorities the power to search, arrest and detain without warrants on suspicion alone.
“This law also makes it impossible for journalists to protect their sources because any refusal to provide information or the provision of false information to investigators is punishable by up to five years in jail.”
Mr Salim noted that the public needs openness which can only be guaranteed by a free media. “The media is considered to the Fourth Estate, but there is no way the media can operate without getting information from the other estates.”
Kigoma North MP Zitto Kabwe said he had received news of the decision with “shock and dismay”.
“I have been shocked by the banning of two daily newspapers using a dictatorial law that was among those the Nyalali Commission said violated human rights,” he said.
The Chadema MP said reasons given by the government for the ban were not convincing, adding that it could have simply gone to court if it thought the two newspapers had overstepped the bounds of acceptable journalism.
Mr Kabwe said the move was contrary to the government’s signing of the Open Government Initiative agreement that advocated transparency in governance, which was even commended by US President Barack Obama. He added that he would introduce a private motion seeking to have the Newspaper Act of 1976 repealed, saying it was there to protect the interests of the ruling elite.
Chadema Information and Publicity Director John Mnyika said there was a need to abolish all laws that were not in the best interests of the public. “They (laws) need to be amended. If the government is unwilling to take the initiative, then this can be done through the courts or mass action,” he said.
Civic United Front Deputy Secretary-General (Tanzanian Mainland Julius Mtatiro said the government should give reasons that were more convincing.
“These reasons are not convincing. The government should try again...Maybe it should look for other reasons...the people are not convinced,” he said.
THRD Coalition national coordinator Onesmo Olengurumo said the Newspapers Act was enacted during the single-party era, and was inapplicable in these times of greater political liberties.
In Dodoma, the regional sheikh, Mustafa Rajab Shaaban, said that the decision to ban the two newspapers was “too harsh”.
“There surely was an alternative to banning the newspapers...this will deny people their right to be informed,” he said.
The chairperson of the University of Dodoma Academic Staff Association, Mr Paul Loisulile, said the ban flew in the face of the government’s claim that it embraced to good governance and transparency. “Banning newspapers is like banning people from accessing news,” he said.
The chairperson of the opposition Chama Cha Ukombozi in Dodoma Region, Mr Kayumbo Kabutali, said the decision amounted to muzzling and intimidating the media.
Additional reporting by Habel Chidawali and Sharon Sauwa