Press freedom restrictions deny citizens information

Sunday December 1 2013

Dar es Salaam. What happened to the days of the Windhoek Declaration of 1991? What happened to freedom of expression and the right to seek, find and disseminate information?

Article 18 of the Constitution of Tanzania, 1977 (as amended 2005) speaks of freedom of expression and opinion without any interference from outside forces.

Somehow that seems to have never been the case in Tanzania, far from it.

It seems that the media will never be free from the clutches of the government. The laws imposed on the media are strict and makes it practically impossible for journalists to do their job.

The media has had to face various challenges when it came to the kind of information that they could publish or broadcast to members of the public. Draconian laws have even been imposed to regulate the so-called press freedom in the country.

In 1976, the Newspaper Act, 1976 was enacted to restrict journalists on the type of stories that were published in newspapers.

Articles 36(i) and 37(1)(b) specifically state that if any journalist publishes “hate” information towards the government then they are liable to a fine of Sh150,000.

On November 7, 2013, Attorney General Fredrick Werema defended the government’s decision to amend sections 36(i) and 37(1)(b) of the Newspapers Act, 1976.

The decision was to increase the penalty fee from Sh150,000 to Sh5 million, which came as a surprise and was met with much disbelief from media practitioners. Thanks to Members of Parliament (MPs), the government’s proposals were finally rejected. However, the government uses other means to bring back what has been rejected.

According to Members of Parliament, “the move aims at suppressing the media industry.” Precisely, how much longer is the media industry in Tanzania going to be suppressed? How can a country promote press freedom and at the same time put uncountable conditions to that freedom?

During the Windhoek Declaration, 1991, African nations agreed on establishing a free media, of which would be funded and not undergo any interference from powerful people. The media was established all right, but not with the kind of freedom that had been spoken of.

Freedom of expression in Tanzania, it appears, comes at a great expense. Journalists are not really free to write the truth. Some of those, who are bold enough to do so, either end up dead, in prison or severely wounded.

Other media outlets, such as Mwananchi and Mtanzania, not to mention Mwanahalisi, which was banned indefinitely, were banned due to the type of stories they published concerning the government.

The government has put restrictive laws, which prohibit the media from accessing any government documents. If journalists cannot use such documents for reference in their publications, then how can they be expected to inform members of the public? Society has a right to know what is happening in their country, otherwise citizens will just be spectators without any rights.

Secretary-general of World Association of Press Councils (WAPC) Chris Conybeare says: “Without press freedom, there can be no free society.”

If the government continues to suppress the media’s right to inform members of the public, then there really is no further reason to continue promoting press freedom in the country. The media is not free to publish ongoing government activities, hence it cannot provide a platform for members of the public to discuss.

Can we in all honesty say there is freedom of expression in Tanzania if the slightest step towards exposing the truth is harshly silenced? Why would the government increase the penalty fee from Sh150,000 to Sh5 million?

Isn’t this just another reason to keep the media in check? What exactly is the government so afraid the media might expose that it feels the need to put in place such strong measures of restriction? What does it have to hide?

If Tanzania can’t have a truly free media, then there is no point in having a clause in the Constitution stating everyone has the right to seek, find and disseminate information without interference regardless of boundaries.

In all reality, the media in Tanzania is constantly interfered with whether through draconian laws, public officials, advertisers or even merely the elite, the media in Tanzania has never really been free.

The media is the voice of the people, they are the ones to voice the suffering, needs and thoughts of the minority. The media is also responsible for informing members of the public about ongoing affairs within the country and provide a platform upon which their views may be heard.

That is the point of the media being referred to as the fourth estate. It is supposed to act like a mediator between the people and the government. Unfortunately, in Tanzania that seems to still have a long way to go.