Media freedom: We’re not there yet

Journalist at work. PHOTO | SALIM SHAO

Last Monday, Tanzania joined other nations of the world in celebrating World Press Freedom Day, May 3, 2021.

While the government speaks of its commitment to a free press, the reality on the ground is remarkably different.

Over the last few years, we in Tanzania have seen a rise in media that was deliberately skewed in its reporting because it was serving the interests of the political state and a cabal that purports to be holier than thou.

Those who played this game not only saw themselves as obligated to support the wants of the powers-that-be, but also saw their patriotic duty as bearing the burden of protecting the interests of the political state.

The latest Press Freedom Index shows that Tanzania is 2nd in the East African Community (EAC) in terms of Press Freedom. But it is ranked 129 globally, while Kenya ranked 1st in EAC, is ranked 109 globally.

The other EAC countries – Uganda, Rwanda, South Sudan and Burundi – follow Kenya and Tanzania in that order.

If I were writing a weekly press review, I would – like the late Philip Ochieng who died at 83 years on April 27 this year – “accuse the Press” regularly for misdeeds such as failure to report events correctly, skewed reporting, self-sponsorship and deliberate distortion of information.

Not even in the most developed countries is the press entirely free from – among other things – external pressure and forces that could have to do with ownership, and other shenanigans.

In Tanzania, bureaucrats and political heavyweights pose the greatest threat to press freedom.

Media guru Ochieng wrote in 2007 – and I paraphrase: “1972, the Daily News was the most free newspaper in the region”.

Published in Dar es Salaam, that newspaper was once upon a time edited by a man who was to become President of the third-phase government of the United Republic of Tanzania, the late Benjamin Mkapa.

Fast forward to to-date – and there has been a marked challenge not just in truth-telling, but also in the amount of revisionism that we have experienced in the Tanzanian media. And, at the centre of this challenge are both self-censorship and revisionism.

President Samia Suluhu Hassan has refused to fall captive to media interest groups and revisionists. Her visit to Kenya early this month is a case in point.

Despite her saying that the case in which Tanzanian authorities incinerated 7,500 day-old chicks two years or so ago, only because they were imported from Kenya by a young Tanzania entrepreneur was wrong, local media refused to lay emphasis on this matter.

In Tanzania we are yet to accept that there are four branches of government: the Executive, the Legislative, the Judiciary and the Media.

Is a free Press a danger to our development? Certainly, not – especially if you have at all bothered to study what Communication for Development is all about.

One of the World Press Freedom Day objectives – ‘Enhanced Media and Information Literacy (MIL) promotes the capacity for people to recognize, value and defend Journalism as a vital part of information, and a public good.

If we start by telling the truth, not being good at propaganda, then we shall get the public and the government on-board in collaborative developmental efforts.

Apart from democratization and good governance, a free press entrenches accountability in the body politic of a nation. What, pray, can we achieve without accountability?

Government bureaucrats and politicians particularly love a meek and subservient media because it helps them to “get away with murder”. If we are committed to development in which as the United Nations says no one is left behind, we have to commit ourselves to a free press.

The circumstances surrounding the death of the fifth-phase President on March 17 this year, Dr John Magufuli, were one such opportunity in which a press whose hands are tied end up playing the propaganda that Mount Kilimanjaro is in Tanzania. Of course it is – and will always be.