Tanzania Media Act brings trouble for journalists

Tanzania's new media bill, aimed at combating "seditious reporting" and preventing hatred has been criticised widely by media experts who believe that it will be used by authorities to restrict media freedom and prevent them reporting on serious issues

The  Tanzania Media Services Act 2016, which was meant to repeal the controversial 1976 Newspaper Act and the Tanzania News Agency, and create a media-friendly environment, seems to have brought more trouble and misery for journalists and media houses operating in the East African nation of 56 million people, according to media experts.

Critics believe the legislation appears to have reinforced the state’s powers to place a leash around the media’s neck, while striving to hide its own wrongdoings.

Main provisions of the law

The Media Services Act of 2016 establishes, among others, a penalty of three to five years in prison and a fine of between US$2,250 and US$9,000 for intentionally publishing information that threatens national security, public safety, public order, the country’s economic interests, public morality or public health, or that injures the reputation, rights and freedom of other persons.

The same punishment applies to anyone who operates a media outlet without a license, practices journalism without accreditation, disseminates false information without justification, or prints, publishes, sells, distributes or reproduces any seditious material.

The law also allows for a journalist’s name to be struck off the ‘Roll of Journalists’ for “gross personal misconduct,” denying the ‘disgraced’ journalist the right to continue their work.

Furthermore, the law warns anyone who imports media material or publishes it, could be jailed for up to between five and 10 years, or pay a fine of between US$3,600 and US$9,000.

The proposed legislation, passed by Parliament on 5 November 2016 and signed into law by President John Magufuli less than two weeks later, gives the courts the power to seize material and equipment used to publish alleged “seditious” content. The owner can forfeit the material, which can be sold, with proceeds going to the Media Fund.

According to the act, seditious content incites hatred or contempt, or excites disaffection against the Tanzanian government.

Every freelancer and correspondent should also have personal risk insurance cover before practicing journalism in Tanzania.

A publication could be suspended for up to 12 months for publishing seditious comment, while any stories incriminating the state require authorisation from the government.

The law also maintains and brings to the fore defamation, this “sword of Damocles” hanging over the heads of critical African journalists, which media campaigners are working hard to get abolished in various countries.

Seditious reporting

State officials and security forces seem to have moved quickly to start implementing the law, catching three journalists  “red-handed” between September and December for allegedly breaking its provisions.

In November, a Kiswahili newspaper journalist was forced by a district commissioner in the city of Kibaha to denounce his story about the filthy state of the region at a public gathering, while two television reporters were detained in September and December on orders of district commissioners of their areas for publishing “seditious” content.

The first story was about residents protesting against a lack of water, while the second concerned the government’s response to a recent earthquake, when at least 17 people were killed, 252 injured and 840 families were left homeless, according to updated official figures.

A state official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said these reports were biased and seditious, and were meant to create disunity and confusion among the people of Tanzania. “This is why we needed a harsh media law to deal with all types of seditious reporting and unjustified criticism,” the official said.

Leonard Wanyama, assistant lecturer at the Technical University of Kenya, told Doha Centre for Media Freedom (DCMF) that Tanzania’s media legislation is very restrictive, especially with regards to the punitive measures used.

“Here it seems any criticism of the government is deemed seditious if it does not fall within the limits of what the powers that be think is acceptable within the structures of national discourse,” Wanyama said.

Media stakeholders cry foul

Angered and frustrated by the continuous ill-treatment of journalists by state officials and security forces, the country’s media stakeholders met late December in Dar es Salaam to discuss the legislation.

“The act contains some clauses that pose difficulties for journalists to execute their duties freely, as it has not provided a clear definition of public interest,” noted James Marenga, National Organisation for Legal Assistance (NOLA) lawyer and journalist.

“And the act has also not yet explained the type of stories that are not supposed to be published because doing so will upset the citizens and prompt them to take action against the government.”

Dr Joyce Omwoha, lecturer and chair of the department of journalism and media studies at the Technical University of Kenya, told DCMF the draconian laws that request journalists to seek the state’s permission before publishing stories are dictatorial, arguing: “The media is supposed to act as the government watchdog and muzzling them is appalling.”

Africa programme coordinator for the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), Angela Quintal said that there are many provisions within the law that are highly problematic.

“The power given to the authorities to arbitrarily suspend newspapers for 12 months on vague charges such as publishing seditious content is of deep concern,” she said.

“It also paves the way for self-censorship because journalists will constantly fear attracting sanction simply for reporting on what is happening in society.

“The licensing of journalists is also unacceptable, for example it paves the way for possible abuse and can become a political tool to stop critical journalists or independent journalism. It will allow the government to punish those who write things it doesn’t approve of or like.

“So much for editorial independence.”

 “We share the view of Tanzanian media and organisations like the International Press Institute that the new law ‘will have a greater negative effect on freedom of expression’ than the old legislation. Frankly, it gives credence to the adage, be careful what you wish for,” Quintal added.  

Hiding government’s wrongdoings?

The new law comes against a backdrop of multiple corruption scandals concerning senior members of the long ruling Chama Cha Mapinduzi (CCM) party. Although not listed among the continent’s 50 most corrupt countries by the Transparency International Corruption Index, graft is deeply embedded in the CCM ranks, as well as in the private sector, analysts said.

Commentators believe that the legislation represents a sort of revenge by the ruling party, to eradicate the media’s powers to help them expose various wrongdoings.

Leonard Wanyama stated: “Punitive media legislation is an indirect act of maintaining law and order. The government and its respective administration would obviously take the position that it would be easier if the ‘inciting’ and ‘seditious’ qualities of the media can be legislatively curtailed before they have a harmful effect on the population.

“The violent use of direct force would obviously result in embarrassing scenes regionally and internationally as the state seeks to attain control. Hence any disgruntlement against the sins by officials would preferably be tackled within the cogs of bureaucracy or legal logjams rather than on the streets.”

His colleague, Dr Omwoha echoed his sentiments: “Of course. All governments want to protect themselves and paint a ‘perfect’ picture to the public. The media being watchful becomes an enemy to government officials. Acts in most cases are meant to hide the ills of power, not to protect the citizenry. These acts of corruption need to be dealt with not just in East Africa but the world over too.”

However, while the ruling party was seen as forging ahead in its drive to sweep away its members’ wrongdoings, some officials among the administration continue to encourage the media to fight corruption.

John Kabale, head of coordination and information at state-controlled Prevention and Combating Corruption Bureau (PCCB), recently urged the media at an event hosted by the Media Council of Tanzania (MCT) to continue spearheading the fight against corruption.

Kabale said the media was an important and effective tool in the fight against the chronic malaise and its adverse effects on society.

Self-regulation replaced by media council

The MCT’s days as an independent self-regulatory body seem to be numbered as the Media Services Act 2016 paves the way to the creation of the ‘Independent Media Council.’

Critics believe this new way of doing things spells the end of self-regulation in Tanzania, and hands over the media’s internal affairs to a state-structured, eagle-eyed institution.

“There was a time when Tanzania’s self-regulation model was viewed as a good example for other countries to follow,” CPJ’s Quintal said, decrying the creation of a statutory, wide-reaching media council.

Tanzanian Parliament, buoyed by its CCM majority, appears to have overlooked several organisations’ calls not to introduce state-structured regulation through the establishment of a Media Council.

In May 2015, Article 19 reviewed the proposed legislation against international standards and best practices on freedom of expression, with particular reference to African regional human rights instruments, before warning that the move would be undemocratic.

Article 19 said: “The Council’s oversight and enforcement powers over the media should be reconsidered. Existing oversight mechanisms should not be duplicated, and where there are gaps, self-regulation should be encouraged as an alternative, for example through the MCT.”

On the eve of the legislation’s enactment, Scott Griffen, director of press freedom programmes at IPI, predicted that the proposed legislation would pose a severe threat to press freedom in Tanzania, and expressed disappointed that it was being rushed through Parliament without sufficient input from media stakeholders.

“No interference and no need to worry”: government

The government has strongly denied that it will control the Independent Media Council and the Accreditation Board, but admitted the end of MCT as a self-regulatory body.

"Let me be clear, the Media Council of Tanzania which is an NGO is defending its interests because by the formation of the Independent Media Council, it will cease to exist,” Minister of Information, Culture, Arts and Sports, Nape Nnauye, said, adding that there was no need to be worried about the new legislation.

"At times, I found it illogical when some people said they found no difference between this bill and the Newspaper 

Act of 1976. This is not true unless we are playing politics," Nnauye said, adding that the new law would transform the industry and the welfare of media practitioners.

Justice and constitutional affairs minister Harrison Mwakyembe said the bill would help journalists strive for professionalism and integrity. He said the Tanzania media industry was suffering from a serious crisis in professionalism.

“The majority of journalists lack the basics. As a result we have personnel who do not fit in. This bill has come to take care of this problem,” Mwakyembe told the National Assembly.

Violations and court cases

While the government is urging the media community not to panic, it does not seem to show any sign of transforming the welfare of journalists. On the contrary, the media environment remains hostile.

The government banned two privately-owned stations in August 2016 for broadcast ‘seditious’ material, and dozens of newspapers have since been taken off the streets, according to a CPJ report.

"It's difficult to see how a morning radio show could cause a breakdown in law and order, but it's crystal clear that the government is trying to stop the flow of information and commentary," CPJ East Africa representative Murithi Mutiga, said.

All rights reserved, Doha Centre for Media Freedom 2017

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