Dar es Salaam. Press freedom has been a subject of debate and battles in the country for the last three decades and 2016 has had its share of the protracted scuffles.
While the Constitution provides for the freedom of expression as a whole, the situation on the ground has continued to be hostile to the very same freedom.
The year began with a surprise ban on live parliamentary proceedings. The ninth parliament (2005-2010), steered by the late Speaker Samuel Sitta initiated a live coverage of all august House sessions. The tradition continued throughout the 10th parliament (2010-2015) under Speaker Anna Makinda. However, on the second meeting of the current parliament (11th) conducted from January 26 to February 5, the tradition hit a rock.
After questions from MPs especially from opposition who lamented that they have been receiving complaints from their voters that they no longer receive live parliamentary broadcasts form the public television and radio, the minister for information Nape Nnauye officially informed the House that only the morning question and answer session would be beamed live.
He said that Tanzania Broadcasting Corporation (TBC) was incurring a loss of Sh4.2 billion a month when doing a full time live parliamentary coverage. He also argued that majority of commonwealth countries are restricting live parliamentary coverage so Tanzania was not doing a new thing.
The move was however heavily criticized by the opposition as a direct attack on media freedom. Opposition MPs had to be forcefully evicted from the august House on January 28, when they resolved to riot inside the House when after their motion to discuss the developments as an urgent matter was turned down.
The criticism continued even outside the parliament but it did not help to revise the situation. While the restriction was first executed though TBC, it has since been extended even to private media houses who now have to rely on feed from a newly formed Bunge TV.
Media Services Act, 2016
The Media Services Act, 2016 was finally passed in November after more than two decades of high and lows. The passing of the Act was however not well received by all stakeholders, especially media practitioners and the opposition camp.
While the government insisted the Act which automatically repelled the infamous Newspaper Act, 1976 was going to professionalize journalism in the country, the other side maintains that it is going to continue muzzle the media industry.
The bill to enact the act was tabled for first reading in September, and in October key stakeholders were called before the parliamentary committee on community development and social services, but they failed to do so and asked for more time to consult their grass root members.
The bill was forwarded to the House without their inputs and was passed despite resistance from opposition. Some of the most contentious issues with the Act includes obligating private media houses to broadcast or publish news or issues of national importance as the Government may direct.
The Act also returned all powers of the ministers which were highly faulted in the 1976 Act, they include powers to prohibit importation of publications or sanction a publication.
Section 58 of the Act reads that, “where the Minister is with the opinion that the importation of any publication would be contrary to the public interest, it may in its absolute discretion and by order published in the Gazette, prohibit the importation of such publication,” and section 59 that, “The Minister shall have powers to prohibit or otherwise sanction the publication of any content that jeopardizes national security or public safety.”
The year began with permanent ban on publication of Kiswahili weekly tabloid Mawio. According to Minister Nnauye who announced the ban on January 21, the government reached the decision after a number warnings against the newspaper form publishing inflammatory articles.
The same month, 27 electronic media houses including one of the country’s leading television station Star TV were threatened with a ban after failing to pay a number of operational fees to Tanzania Communications Regulatory Authority (TCRA), they however survived the axe by settling the payments.
In April Mr Nnauye deregistered 473 newspapers, journals and magazines which had not been published for more than three years. In August 11, the minister suspend a Kiswahili weekly tabloid, Mseto for three years, after the government accused it of running stories with the intention of inciting hatred against President John Magufuli.
Two weeks later the minister cracked his whip again this time to two radio stations, Dar es Salaam based Magic FM and Arusha’s Radio 5 for airing “inflammatory content, which could spark discord in the society.” He then ordered TCRA’s content committee to ponder on the matter and listen to the station’s defense before advising him on the next steps.
In September 16, Magic FM was allowed back on the airwaves but was ordered to apologize to President John Pombe Magufuli for three consecutive days on its prime news bulletins.
Radio 5 which is owned by the family of former Prime Minister Edward Lowassa received additional three months ban and a fine of Sh5 million.
Enforcing the Cybercrime Act, 2015
A nasty political battle was fought last year during the passing of the Cybercrime Act, few months before the General Elections. Its opponent cautioned that it was tailored to suppress freedom of information across online platforms.
Finally this December has seen the first hotshot victim of the act, the co-founder and Managing Director of local popular online site JamiiForums Maxence Melo. Melo was arrested on December 13, for refusing to disclose to police anonymous users of the site and spent three nights on police cell before officially charged with three counts on December 16.
He’s facing two counts of obstructing police investigations in two separate occasions (between April 1 and December 13 this year and again between May 10 and December 13 this year) in contravention of the Cybercrime Act.