Dar es Salaam. The European Union has expressed its concern about press freedom in Tanzania after the government banned the circulation of the regional weekly The EastAfrican last week.
“It is the duty of the media to work within the law and to make every effort to adopt and adhere to professional standards. But press freedom and freedom to express opinions are fundamental rights of the people, which call for circumspection and proportionality in the application of the law,” the Delegation of the European Union said in a statement. It noted with concern that modern media legislation guaranteeing citizens’ right to information was yet to be enacted in Tanzania despite the longstanding requests of the media profession and the repeated promises by the government.
“It is recalled that in October 2010 the EU’s independent Election Observation Mission recommended expediting modernisation of the media laws, taking into account stakeholders’ views.
“The Delegation of the European Union calls upon the government to make every effort to preserve the freedom of expression in Tanzania and it urges all stakeholders to prioritise constructive dialogue as the primary means to resolve differences. It also reiterates its commitment to monitor, support, promote and monitor media freedom as a shared value of the EU partnership with Tanzania.”
The Canadian High Commission and Norwegian and Swiss embassies endorsed the statement.
The government last week banned The EastAfrican from circulation in Tanzania, 20 years after it was launched to cover the region.
According to a letter sent to The EastAfrican bureau chief in Tanzania, the decision was apparently taken because the paper “has been circulating in the country without having registration, contrary to section 6 of the Newspaper Act number 3 of 1976”.
Reacting to the ban, the management of the Nation Media Group, which owns The EastAfrican, described the move as surprising and unwarranted.
In a letter dated January 21, 2015 the weekly newspaper was directed to immediately stop publishing, printing and circulating in Tanzania “until it has officially been registered by the Registrar of Newspapers, Tanzania Information Services”.
Before the letter was issued, the newspaper’s Bureau Chief, Christopher Kidanka, was on Wednesday summoned and interrogated by the Director of Information Services, who also doubles as the government’s spokesman, Mr Assah Mwambene.
During the session, the government expressed its dissatisfaction with the newspaper’s reporting and analysis (including the opinion pieces it publishes).
Mr Mwambene accused it of having a negative agenda against Tanzania. He singled out a recent opinion that criticised the Dar es Salaam administration’s stance on the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR) rebels in the Democratic Republic of Congo as a case in point.
Mr Mwambene also took exception to the cartoon in the current issue of The EastAfrican, that he said demonstrated bad taste and disrespect to the person and office of the president.
Rreacting on the ban, Nation Media Group Chairman Wilfred Kiboro said the excuse given by the Tanzanian government was surprising because the newspaper has been circulating in the country for 20 years.
“Surely they can’t just wake up now and declare us illegal. If it was an issue of regularising files, that does not require such a draconian measure of banning a newspaper,” he said.
He said that the real reason “lies elsewhere” and could only be related to the firm stand that the newspaper has taken on reporting on corruption, pilferage and inadequate delivery of services to the people of East Africa.
“Last year, the same government shut down our other publication – Mwananchi –for two weeks for reasons that have never been made clear.
“We can only assume that this decision is in the same vein and demand now, as we did then, that such unfair and undemocratic actions are what undermine our governments’ claims to being democratic, believing in press freedom and to being pro-business,” he said.
Mr Kiboro added that the media group’s editorial policies were explicit on its independence, which he said would continue to guide the newspaper’s reporting at all times.
“We know that there are instances we have erred in judgement and we have been quick to apologise, like in the case of the cartoon in question.
“Such mistakes, however, can never justify a ban because banning is an option (which) only unaccountable dictatorships apply,” he said.
He said that he hoped that the Tanzanian government, in keeping with its avowed commitment to free press and support for democratic ideals, will speedily allow The EastAfrican back in circulation.
The Nation Media Group, through its subsidiary Mwananchi Communications Ltd, also published the Mwananchi, The Citizen and Mwanaspoti newspapers in Tanzania.