How Mkapa advocated free, quality media in Tanzania

Monday July 27 2020
mkapa pic

Arusha. It was not by coincidence that Benjamin William Mkapa, the third phase Union President who passed away in the wee hours of Friday, advocated quality journalism.

Upon graduating from the prestigious Makerere University in Uganda in the early 1960s, he joined the central government, but soon applied for further studies abroad.

The courses that took him to the US were diplomacy and journalism, which would later take him to the higher echelons in both sectors; long serving Foreign Affairs minister and newspaper editor.

It was around 1966 that he was appointed the managing editor of The Nationalist. This was a daily paper (not published on Sunday) of the independence party, Tanu.

Before it folded in 1972 when it was merged with The Standard to form Daily News, it was said to be the first African-owned and managed daily English newspaper in east and central Africa.

The Nationalist, launched around 1964, was to expound the interests of the newly-independent Tanzanians (and Zanzibaris) and the liberation struggles in southern Africa.


It was used by the ruling party to silence critics of Mwalimu Nyerere in the late 1960 who defected from Tanu and some fleeing the country after the Arusha Declaration.

The tabloid technically put off Mwalimu’s critics and forces against Tanzania for its turn to socialism through hard-hitting editorials by Mkapa.

When it was merged with The Standard, Mr Mkapa was the natural choice for the managing editor post of the new publication and he managed it for just over two years until July, 1974. Mwalimu Nyerere, who was Mkapa’s teacher in the early 1950s, took him to his office to serve as a press secretary in mid-1974. But the Head of State was soon to realise here was one of his most trusted assistants who was fit to remain in the news room.

He sent him back to the media when he appointed him the founding director of Tanzania New Agency (Shihata) in July 1976.

He did not last long as he was soon to land in a diplomatic job in key stations abroad: Nigeria, Canada and the United States and later a ministerial job.

But during his tenure as a managing editor of the two papers and a news agency, he cut an edge of a serious newsroom CEO who would only smile when the quality of work was up to the standards.

Although he was not much outspoken in public, his desire for trained journalists was apparent and would be provoked by any shoddy work.

As the managing editor of the English dailies - The Nationalist and Daily News - he would ensure that journalists recruited had the appropriate working tools - that included mastery of the language.

The challenge then was where to get the trained people in journalism in those days; the 1960s and 1970s. Most of the print journalists either trained at a church-run journalism school at Nyegezi, Mwanza. The rest were trained in Zambia, Kenya, the Eastern Europe, India, US and elsewhere.

He was among the media ‘gurus’ of the day who pushed for the establishment of the Tanzania School of Journalism (TSJ) in the mid-1970s under the government.

In July 1980, only five years after it was set up, Mr Mkapa himself visited the establishment. He was the minister for Foreign Affairs.

He delivered a keynote address on Man-Centred Journalism, insisting that was where the profession should head to.

Incidentally, the concept (Man-Centred Journalism) more or less fell on the same lines with another presentation by Mwalimu to the editors in 1973 that ‘Mass Media Should Serve the People’.

Before he delivered his presentation at TSJ’s Mgulani premises, he ensured all the heads of the media institutions in the country, then -mostly public owned - were present. But during his 10 year tenure as the Heads of States, Mkapa often did not appear to share much with the media institutions, including those he swerved.

He was often quoted complaining some journalists or media houses had become notorious for flaunting their work ethics.

He did not directly fire editors or chase away reporters covering his events, but would use events he was invited to grace to stress strict adherence to the professional ethics. He did so on September 15, 2004 when he launched The Citizen, a daily tabloid published by Mwananchi Communications Limited (MCL) and The EastAfrican, a weekly publication of the Nation Media Group (NMG) on November 7, 1994.