Cautious optimism greets tabling of Media Bill

Tanzania Editors’ Forum chairman Deodatus Balile speaks to journalists in Dar es Salaam yesterday about the Media Services Act amendment bill that was tabled in Parliament yesterday.

PHOTO | Michael Matemanga

What you need to know:

  • The proposed miscellaneous amendments were tabled in Parliament yesterday for first reading

Dar es Salaam. Media stakeholders have received, with cautious optimism, the proposed amendments to the Media Services Act Cap 229 that were tabled in Parliament by the government yesterday. The, though, insisted that the amendments were aimed at bolstering freedom of speech in the country.

The proposed miscellaneous amendments were tabled in Parliament yesterday for first reading, proposing changes in the country’s media law including relieving the Director of Information Services Department from the function of coordinating government adverts.

The government sees the move as a plus as far as fair competition is concerned.

On the other hand, the Bill proposes a deletion of section 38(3) of which the government claims that it serves in the interest of maximizing the freedom of expression in the country.

Furthermore, the government proposed the amendment of sections 50, 51, 53, 54, 55, 63 and 64 with a view to ensuring that media practitioners enjoy the freedom of expression, access to information and editorial independence without fear of criminal sanctions.

According to the government, the proposed amendments, among other things, aim at excluding media practitioners from criminal defamation which, as a general rule, fall within the ambit of civil actions.

“Moreover, the proposed amendments in such sections are intended to remove punishment to owners of printing plants who, under normal circumstances, are unable to control contents of matters which are brought for printing,” the Bill reads in part,

“In the same spirit of enhancing and promoting freedom of speech, the Bill proposes to reduce penalties in respect of various offences in order to align such penalties with the gravity of their respective offences,” reads another part.

Yesterday, the Tanzania Editors Forum (TEF) chairman, Mr Deodatus Balile, thanked President Samia Suluhu Hassan for ensuring the Bill is read for the first time in Parliament.

He said they are going to pass through the sections to establish whether every agreement had been accommodated.

“We can see the President’s hand in this first reading of the Bill in Parliament. This has happened after struggles that started in 2016 shortly after the law had been endorsed. We have seen positive developments in the media industry since President Hassan assumed office in March 2021, including the lifting of the ban imposed on different newspapers such as MwanaHalisi, Mawio, Mseto and Tanzania Daima,” he said.

He said President Hassan’s administration has reduced fees payable by radio and television stations from Sh73 million to Sh32 million annually.

The Media Council of Tanzania (MCT) executive secretary, Mr Kajubi Mukajanga, said although they haven’t gone through the copy, they have received the news unreservedly.

“We are going to read the Bill, make a comprehensive analysis and consult among our members and partners on the way forward which will then be communicated to the public,” he said. He said MCT is obliged to analyse media laws and examine whether recommendations they made were taken on board.

However, Dr Abdullah Mohamed, an independent media law expert, opined that the Bill should be publicly debated to ensure that it really protect the right to freedom of speech.

“The Bill is sugar-coated, it doesn’t give the answer to the freedom of expression question. In fact, a closer look of the proposed Bill indicates further that, contrary to what the government asserts, the amendments do not strengthen the fundamental right to information,” he noted.

The Tanzania Human Rights Defenders Coalition (THRDC) national coordinator, Mr Onesmo Olengurumwa said the formulation of the bill, didn’t involve the general public.

“In fact, the Bill wasn’t in a position of allowing public participation. I think the responsible minister had consultation with a few players in the media industry. However, freedom of speech involves stakeholders from different groups,” he observed.

“The public has the right to inform and be informed. We have what we call social media, therefore, the public need to participate and propose the kind of the law they want,” he added.

Beside, Mr Olengurumwa cautioned, “Let them enact it but; if we find that it doesn’t suit the public, then we will go to court to challenge the enacted law similar to the decision we made in 2017.

In January 2017, MCT, THRDC and the Legal and Human Rights Centre (LHRC) filed a petition at the East African Court of Justice (EACJ) challenging the Media Service Act No.12 of 2016 enacted by Parliament and got assented by President John Magufuli in November 2016.