Freedom of speech has to be within ethical framework

Friday September 6 2019

Professor Zulfiqarali Premji

Professor Zulfiqarali Premji 

This is in response to the article published in The Economist of August 1, 2019 titled Tyranny in Tanzania; another critic of President John Magufuli is silenced.

The Economist is widely read and using such a strong word, Tyranny is unfair, misleading, misrepresenting and perhaps unethical journalism. The impact of such an article can be hugely negative to the people of Tanzania. There is a need of a more balanced reporting. I am not a trained journalist, writing this column on a weekly basis is my recently adopted hobby.

I have come to realize that ethics has a big role in the media industry, the so-called tenet of democracy, which many refer to, as freedom of speech, which should have boundaries and frontiers and an ethical framework. Apart from these confines, media should also be sensitive to the local culture, traditions, beliefs and faith matters. Journalism also has ethics and principles of good practice. These media ethics are also widely known as professional code of ethics or the canons of journalism.

The essence of code of ethics includes principles of truthfulness, accuracy, objectivity, impartiality, fairness, and public accountability, as these apply to the acquisition of newsworthy information and its subsequent dissemination to the public.

So with this background can someone in his right senses classify Tanzania as a tyranny country? Hundreds of tourist arrive and depart everyday, millions of honest hard working citizens go about daily with their routine, there is law and order, courts are functional, property is protected and by any imagination this is not a banana republic so where is the evidence of tyranny?

Just like in any other country there are people who are facing court cases for various reasons and crimes and ultimately the court decides their fate. These people are from various backgrounds, some are professionals in their careers, some are businesspersons, some are politicians, and so it is false to say a specific group is targeted. Foreign embassies caution us about constricting democracy and restricting freedom of press, if this is not daylight meddling in the internal affairs of a sovereign state what is it?


Let me start by being specific, in recent times we are imitating certain aspects of media that are perhaps not in line with our culture. It is within our culture to respect elders and leaders so why are we allowing drawing insulting cartoons of our leaders in print media.

To me this should be classified as unethical because it goes against our culture.

Recently in the Morogoro tanker accident pictures of charred bodies were seen in the social media, was this really necessary? Is this in line with the cannons of journalism?

We drive at certain speeds, we don’t smoke in places where it’s not allowed like restaurants and we do things specifically to avoid harming others, and those who breach these restrictions face punishment. How different, in terms of consequences, are the actions we conduct to the words we say?

In the final analysis, it is context that is the key. The media has a responsibility to report the bad stuff going on in the world; it is that which is “news”, in the end (things going well is, or should be, just the norm). But we have to do that in a way that makes real sense and avoids offending other people or causing harm. The real litmus test is in balanced reporting.

The main problem is extremism; harmful views like hate speech that can lead to breach in peace and zealous counter development criticism of government’s policies and actions. It all boils down to judgment, who decides that this is constructive criticism and should be allowed or this is downright destructive critique and should not be allowed. This is the crux of the matter and unfortunately we cannot rely on commonsense.

So the message is to both the government as well as journalists to exercise tolerance, constraint and increase space for dialogue, discussions, discourse, and conversation because the long-term impact of rigidity is always a no win situation and counter productive.

A world with truly unlimited free speech would be chaos. Consider this; should a prospective employer be free to ask the religion and sexuality of an interviewee? Should advertisers be allowed to make fantastical claims about the products they are hawking, regardless of the risks involved in doing so? Should psychiatrists publicize information about their clientele? The answer, of course, is no. Certain limits of free speech exist in all societies for good reason.

All support the concept of free speech, but very few believe it should be wholly unrestricted. It’s not workable. Supporting limits to free speech in no way means you are anti-debate.

Zulfiqarali Premji is a retired MUHAS professor. His career spans over 40 years in academia, research and public health.