Since coming to office 365 days ago, President Magufuli’s actions have attracted both praise and criticism. Some criticise his attitude to democratic and constitutional rights, while others focus on his determination to cut wasteful expenditure and drive through some solutions to some long-standing problems.
Even the President’s strongest critics, however, would probably express admiration for his commitment to addressing one problem in particular: corruption. And yet, while the government is showing an unprecedented resolve to “tumbua majipu”, it risks seriously damaging an institution that has a proven track record –in Tanzania and across the world – at uncovering corruption: the media.
Without dedicated work by Tanzanian newspapers, the Escrow, IPTL, Richmond and BoT-EPA scandals would not have come to public attention. Without similar efforts of media around the world, corruption scandals such as that at FIFA, would probably never have been uncovered.
Nobody claims that the media is perfect, nor that it unearthed these scandals without help from other actors, nor that it gets it right on every issue. Nevertheless, without a free and independent media, efforts to tackle corruption would be almost impossible.
This is why the Media Services Bill, currently under discussion by Parliament, is so problematic. It fails to recognise the value of free and independent media. And it threatens to fundamentally undermine the positive role the media can play.
There are four specific problems with the bill. Let’s look at each in turn.
First, the Bill effectively does nothing to change the current situation where the government has complete control over the licensing of newspapers. At any time, the government will still be able to suspend or close any newspaper, without needing to give a proper explanation, without giving the newspaper an opportunity to defend itself, and without any role for independent judges to, a priori, assess the merits of the case. In the 1990s, the Nyalali Commission denounced similar arrangements in the 1976 Newspaper Act as being incompatible with a multi-party democracy and with the country’s constitution.
Second, the Bill introduces a new form of licensing – this time for individual journalists. Nobody will be allowed to practice journalism without accreditation from the government. Any journalist whose reporting is critical of the government – having uncovered a case of corruption, for example – could find their career evaporate. The mere worry that this might happen would be enough to persuade many journalists to ignore such a story.
Third, the Bill introduces some clear restrictions on the freedom of newspapers and other media to choose what stories to cover and how to cover them. Privately owned media, under the new Bill, will be required “to broadcast or publish news or issues of national importance as the government may direct”. In other words, they could be directed to cover the stories the government wants them to cover and in the way the government wants them to be covered. This is a clear infringement on the right to freedom of expression. It will seriously undermine the media’s ability to draw public attention to problems in government.
Fourth, the Bill has a heavy-handed approach to reporting that criticises others. It is established in international law that criticisms cannot be considered defamatory if they are true, or if they represent the writer’s opinion. Sadly, this Bill allows journalists to be sued for libel where what they said is true, or where it is their personal opinion. Furthermore, the Bill has a very broad definition of ‘sedition’ that includes statements that could “raise discontent or disaffection”. If this Bill becomes law, a journalist can be jailed simply because something they wrote might upset a few people. But journalism that doesn’t upset anybody is not really journalism: it’s advertising.
In its current version, this Bill is a clear and present danger to the independence of Tanzania’s media, to our collective struggle against corruption and to our young democracy. Passing it, without fundamental changes, will cast a long shadow over all the good that President Magufuli’s anti-corruption efforts have achieved.