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Why it’s time for journalists to unshackle themselves

Tuesday April 06 2021
PRESS PIC

Journalist at work. The Media Council of Tanzania says increased incidents of press freedom violations has compromised bold journalism. PHOTO | SALIM SHAO

By PETER NYANJE

Two cartoons in social media recently caught the attention of journalists and civil society activists, basically because they depicted the state of media freedom in Tanzania today. One cartoon shows a man squatting inside a cage. Although the cage’s gate is wide open, the man – dubbed ‘MEDIA’ – continues to remain still!

The other cartoon shows a man chained to a huge pole, while a woman holding keys is walking towards the chained man.

By interpretation, the two cartoons depict the state of media freedom in the country. In the first sketch, the cartoonist shows that, although journalists and the mass media in general have been given the freedom they have been desiring for long, they seem not ready to embrace it by walking out of the cage!

The second cartoon implies that the freedom which the media, journalists and civil societies have been craving for so long is approaching.

The two cartoons imply that the restriction of freedom and civic space that was imposed on the media, journalists and civil societies by extraneous forces – and which they could not unshackle themselves from – is about to be over, as freedom is a-coming.

But, while it is true that such freedom was to a great extent curtailed by forces outside the media, there are other factors which journalists and the media should be held accountable for.

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For instance, in a recent survey conducted by the Media Council of Tanzania (MCT) – a report of which is yet to be published – it emerged that most journalists do not know much about media regulatory frameworks.

MCT conducted a fact-finding survey on press freedom and access to information in six administrative regions to establish the reality on the ground: Arusha, Dar es Salaam, Dodoma, Kilimanjaro and Mwanza.

Most of the interviewed journalists admitted that they only partially know the Access to Information Act of Tanzania… confessing that what little they know of the law resulted from some presentations they happened to listen to in various forums.

This means that most journalists are not aware that this law gives them the right to seek and get information from different sources, including government and other public officials.

It was no wonder, then, that most of those interviewed during the survey conceded to not to have used the law to extract information from government-cum-public officials.

This is a very sorry state of affairs – if only because journalists have for long been complaining about lack of effective mechanisms to guarantee them freedom to readily access public information.

Enacted in 2016, this law is the answer to long-time demands by journalists and other media practitioners. Indeed, one would have thought that journalists would have effectively used it to force government/public officials to disclose any and all public information as a matter of course.

The law provides for penalties for officials who withhold public information without a valid reason.

Instead of invoking the law, journalists have continued to complain about officials who have been denying them public information that’s within their domain.

This was so despite the fact that over half of those who participated in the MCT survey admitted that they experienced some forms of press freedom violations while on duty between 2019 and 2021. The violations included threats and other forms of intimidation, as well as confiscation of journalists’ equipment and, to a lesser extent, arrests by the police.

Most of the respondents said there was information which they regarded as ‘unpublishable,’ and they avoided it altogether – even when there really was nothing wrong with it.

For example, they could not publish stories which were critical of the government on sensitive issues such as the Covid-19 pandemic, human rights/conflicts – and stories which gave prominence to the political opposition!

Most interviewed journalists requested anonymity, saying their jobs could be in jeopardy if it were known that they had participated in the MCT study.

In order to save their skins – and their jobs – most journalists found themselves writing pieces which unduly praise the government, such as the launch of major development projects, “official” statements and social-cum- human interest stories.

This is only part of what journalists are required to undertake professionally if they want to be functional watchdogs and voice of the voiceless.