Friday, April 17, 2015

MOHAMMED: Rolling back years of free press progress

By Omar Mohammed

Over the last decade, Tanzania’s media space has opened up considerably. From mostly government and ruling party run media houses, the country has evolved to possess one of the most vibrant and diverse media environments on the continent. This shift explains why Freedom House, the US based watchdog organisation on issues around freedom, describes the country’s press status as being “partly free.”

However, recent actions by the Kikwete administration are threatening to roll back years of progress on press freedoms.

It began with the passage in Parliament in late March of the Statistics Act that analysts say is in danger of criminalising journalism.

The Act has made it illegal for anyone to publish or communicate statistics unauthorised by the National Bureau of Statistics, a government body. According to the new law, TanJournalists using data from government sources before they are made public or information unapproved by NBS could be jailed up to 12 months.

The law could also make criminal such acts as the conducting of opinion polls and other research that might employ data gathered independent of NBS. Essentially, with this legislation, it now means that any intellectual endeavour that uses statistics has to be sanctioned by the government. On the regulatory front, last week the government pulled out two Bills from parliamentary debate that it claims will deepen press freedoms in the country. While media advocacy groups argue that the administration is rushing through the legislation without consulting relevant stakeholders or allowing for enough open debate on their contents, the laws would’ve gone a long way towards improving on the status quo.  It should be noted that President Kikwete has shown a commitment to transparency in the past, signing up to open government initiatives and promising the passage of the Freedom of Information Act.

But the current environment is unfriendly to a flourishing free press. While the Constitution guarantees freedom of speech, certain laws put significant limitations on an open media. The National Security Act makes it a criminal offence to reveal information the government deems a “classified matter.” Meanwhile, the Newspaper Registration Act gives the minister of Information the authority to ban a publication if they are of the opinion that the decision is in the “interest of peace and good order.”

Such powers have led to the banning of several newspapers in the last few years. The most recent example involves the Kenyan-based regional newspaper the East African which was pulled off the shelves for “circulating in the country without being properly registered, contrary to section 6 of the Newspaper Act number 3 of 1976.” The decision is rather odd, considering that the paper is circulation in the country for two decades. The real reason behind the ban may have something to do with a cartoon published in the paper that a government spokesman said had demonstrated bad taste and disrespect to the person and office of the president.

Reacting to the news, a US State Department official said the incident underscores the need for Tanzania to update its media laws, something that it is still struggling to do.

Meanwhile, social media and the blogosphere have become an important avenue of public discourse in the country. But there the new Cybercrimes Act introduced recently could end up limiting speech and the free spread of information online. Provisions in the new law, make it a criminal offence to “publish false information” or “details of an investigation.”

The Deputy Minister of Communication, Science and Technology January Makamba indicated in a tweet that the government is open to refining the law depending on the public’s feedback.

And an amendment introduced yesterday clarifies that charges will only be brought in those instances where “intent to defame, threaten, abuse, insult, cause public panic, or encourage criminal offence” has been established. But what happens now to satire or comedy in general, for example. A lot of humour happens on social media. Does it mean, therefore, that someone could go to prison for making fun of someone on Twitter or Facebook?

As we head to the General Election, these attempts at tightening the media space are raising concerns that it could be extremely tough for journalists to cover the campaign. Hopefully, cooler heads will prevail before then and that the president won’t sign these laws. Surely, this is not a legacy President Kikwete wants to leave for his people as he retires this year.

Mr Mohammed is a journalist and a 2014/15 Hubert H. Humphrey Fulbright Fellow at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism at Arizona State University. He tweets @shurufu

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