Friday, March 27, 2015

‘Unofficial’ data could land you behind bars

Ubungo MP John Mnyika seeks the Speaker’s

Ubungo MP John Mnyika seeks the Speaker’s guidance on the Prime Minister Mizengo Pinda’s absence from the Prime Minister’s questions and answers session in Parliament yesterday.  Right is Mbozi West MP David Silinde.   PHOTO | ANTHONY SIAME 

Dodoma/Dar es Salaam. Tanzania could become one of the most hostile territories for publishing firms, researchers and academicians after Parliament passed a new law yesterday limiting the publication of data to only those from the government’s own Bureau of Statistics.

By acclamation, Parliament passed the Statistics Bill 2013, which slaps a stiff penalty on anyone who publishes data or statistics outside the publications of the Tanzania National Bureau of Statistics.

The bill was approved despite spirited resistance from some opposition MPs, led by Ubungo MP John Mnyika (Chadema).

Ironically, the bill that was moved by Finance Minister Saada Mkuya Salum was withdrawn in February after a cross-section of MPs and parties outside the national assembly questioned the same provision that grants the National Bureau of Statistics exclusive rights to publish data and statistics.

Attorney General George Masaju led the government’s defence as the front bench joined forces to defeat objections by the opposition, which accused the ruling party’s MPs of passing the “offensive” bill without considering the consequences.

Yesterday’s move was immediately criticised by media activists and governance and human rights organisations that view the bill as a major setback in the government’s own push for the Open Government Initiative championed by President Jakaya Kikwete. They appealed to Mr Kikwete not to sign the bill into law if he was serious and committed to the Open Government Initiative, which has won him international acclaim.

The Media Council of Tanzania Executive Secretary, Mr Kajubi Mukajanga, pointed out that stakeholders had in February criticised the Bill heavily, particularly the section that touches on publication of unauthorised statistics. “It is amazing that they would retain such a provision now,” he said. Mr Mukajanga has vowed to comment more after he reviews the bill.

Mr Onesmo Olengurumwa, one of the co-ordinators of the Tanzania Human Rights Defender Coalition, said the passing of the bill will have a significant effect on private institutions in academia because making NBS the only institution allowed to approve statistics would curtail research and freedom to challenge NBS data. “It is retrogressive in the current world for the government to pass such a law,” he said. “What we see is a move to force on the people what the government wants them to believe.”

Dr Hellen-Kijo Bisimba, the executive director of the Legal and Human Rights Centre, said she was shocked that the parliamentarians should be so lacking in wisdom and grace.

Said Dr Bisimba: “This is a desperate and calculated move by a draconian government keen on stamping out dissent and alternative views. They are doing it with an ulterior motive as the country heads to a General Election. We will not stop making noise until the bad law is removed if the President assents to it. It defeats logic that while we are struggling to remove numerous bad laws from our statutes, this government is adding more.”

Mr Alex Ruchyahinduru, Communication and Advocacy Manager at Policy Forum, expressed the same sentiments and added that the law would affect the way research and academic institutions do their work. “These institutions will lack the space and freedom to exercise their duties, some of them critical to national development,” he said.

In Dodoma, some MPs saw yesterday’s move as a sign that the government intends to approve two other controversial bills on Media Services and Access to Information that are to be tabled as a matter of urgency.

The government has held on to the two bills in what some players say is an orchestrated scheme to use CCM’s majority in Parliament to hurriedly approve the bills along with other provisions that will stifle press freedom and curtail the right to information.   

If Mr Kikwete endorses the Statistics Bill, media practitioners and publishing houses--even research institutions--would be required to only report official figures from NBS. It also lists offences and punishment, including imprisonment for those who do not comply.

Reported by Katare Mbashiru and Bernard Lugongo