FACE OFF: Preaching pragmatics versus clamping down
The new face of Tanzania, President John Pombe Magufuli, is taking the continent by storm. He’s won the hearts of many for his efforts to clamp down on excessive government spending. However, a closer look reveals a sinister campaign against the media and freedom of expression.
President Magufuli’s entry onto the political scene was as a fairly unknown player yet in a short time the former school teacher, industrial chemist and outgoing Minister of Work, has managed to capture the headlines nationally and internationally. As the Daily Maverick describes: “Almost overnight, from being a relative nobody – even within Tanzania, Magufuli was not particularly well-known before his expensive presidential campaign – Magufuli became an African icon.”
Prior to being sworn in as President, he made waves with his unexpected yet refreshingly brazen actions. During some of his campaign rallies, he would dropdown on his hands and feet and perform push-up exercises – his response to criticism by the opposition implying that he was not fit enough to be President.
Nicknamed the Bulldozer, for driving a programme to build roads, it is Magufuli’s reputation as a no-nonsense, pragmatic, driven and most importantly corrupt free man that has gained him celebrity status. On Tanzania’s Independence Day, he cancelled lavish celebrations and instead he literally and figuratively took to the streets and opted to sweep them, along with his fellow citizens.
A Mail and Guardian Africa article which was published towards the end of 2016, listed John Magufuli as one of the 18 Africans “who has won our hearts”. The article describes him as a man “who has quickly earned a reputation for frugality and being opposed to ostentation, in a continent famous for politicians and big men who live large. By limiting unnecessary spending – for example, his announcement of reallocating public money that was meant for Independence-Day festivities instead towards improving health-care and towards fighting a cholera outbreak –has made him a social media sensation, with a hashtag #WhatWouldMagufuliDo.
It is this excitement over his honest approach to decision making processes that is blinding people to the subtle but disturbing actions being taken against the media.
One month after his inauguration the government introduced four new bills to regulate the media (the Cybercrimes Act, 2015, the Statistics Act, 2013, the Media Services Act, 2015 and the Access to Information Act, 2015).
The Cybercrimes Act, 2015 and the Statistics Act, 2013 have been ratified, while the The Access to Information Act, 2015 and the Media Services Act, 2015 are expected to pass through the legislative process in the course of the coming sessions.
As explained in the report An Assessment of the New Tanzanian Media Laws of 2015: “The Government of the Republic of Tanzania argues that these four bills are needed to facilitate access to information and regulate the media sector. Its critics argue that those laws entail draconic measures and are going to close down democratic space.
“An analysis of all four bills focusing on issues of rights to freedom of expression and information and the likelihood of these rights being compromised or violated by provisions in the act, show that all four bills go against the international benchmarks of media freedom and media regulation and they contravene African and International Standards on numerous counts and should be rewritten.”
Against the backdrop of these restrictive measures, in January this year, the government:
· suspended 18 radio stations for failing to pay their licences,
· stopped the live coverage of Parliamentary proceedings citing prohibitive costs and
· banned the privately owned weekly newspaper Mawio from publication.
These new constrictions on media question his commitment towards democracy, human rights and development.
The infamous Newspaper Act of 1976 was used to de-register the privately owned weekly tabloid called Mawio and restrict the publication from operating entirely, even through online platforms. This ban was placed on Mawio a few days after a year-long ban on The East African newspaper was revoked.
In the government notice no 55 published on January 15, the statement reads, “The Newspaper titled “Mawio” shall cease publication permanently including any electronic communication as per the Electronic and Postal Communication Act, with effect from January 15th, 2016”. The New Minister of Information Nape Nnauye said the government regretted taking the decision but was compelled to act due to the newspaper’s continuous writing and publication of content that is inciteful and threat to the peace, stability and security of the country.
Soon after this, the Tanzanian government suspended 27 television and radio stations for three months for failing to fulfil their licensing requirements.
According to a statement issued in by the Tanzania Communication Regulatory Authority (TCRA) the radio and television stations were notified in September 2015, that they were required to pay their licence fees before the end of the year. Among the numerous media organisations that received the notification only 11 media organisations had managed to pay their fees by the beginning of the year.
Most major popular television and radio stations were still on air after the due date because they had either paid their dues on Saturday 17th , while other organisations had pleaded with TCRA for leeway so they could pay by Monday the 18th.
According to Minister Nnauye the decision to discontinue live streaming of parliamentary proceedings being broadcast on state owned channel; Tanzania Broadcasting Corporation (TBC), was the high cost of up to US$2.1 billion annually, which needed to be minimized.
The Opposition party offered to sustain this cost, indicating that the halting of the live streaming infringed upon the rights of the people.
MISA Regional Secretariat