On January 21, 2015, the Tanzanian government banned The East African after accusing the regional weekly newspaper of circulating without registration in contravention of section six of the Newspaper Act (1976), which gives the minister in charge of information discretionary powers to deregister newspapers. The East African, which recently marked twenty years of publication, has been used to steer the East African Community’s (EAC) regional integration agenda, and covers the five EAC member states’ reporting on their socioeconomic and political developments. The ban on this paper not only raises questions about the state of press freedom in Tanzania, but also Tanzania’s commitment to the EAC integration plan and comes at a time when the country is readying itself for a constitutional referendum and general elections to be held later this year.

The government accuses the paper of nursing a “negative agenda” against Tanzania and particularly taking offense with an op-ed piece that questioned Tanzania’s position on the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR), a rebel group based in the Democratic Republic of Congo. With hindsight, some observers view the move as a calculated attempt to send a message to the local media that the government will not tolerate “critical” reports ahead of the referendum and elections.

This development adds to a recent and escalating attack on press freedoms. Despite Tanzania’s reputation as an island of tranquility in a turbulent region, retrogressive legislation that has granted the government excessive control may represent an effort to curb the media. Reports of harassment of and attacks on journalists in Tanzania have been on the rise. In 2012, local journalist Daudi Mwangosi was reportedly shot and killed by police while covering an opposition political rally, and in the following year, Absalom Kibanda, the chairman of the Tanzania Editors Forum, was attacked, tortured, and left for dead by unknown people.

Also in 2012, the government used the Newspaper Act to ban indefinitely the weekly investigative paper Mwanahalisi. This was the second time Mwanahalisi was banned; the first was in 2008, when it was accused of having published seditious and false information. In 2013, the government invoked the Newspaper Act once again to suspend two leading dailies, Mwananchi and Mtanzania,1Mwananchi was banned for fourteen days, while Mtanzania got a ninety-day ban. The two papers resumed circulation after the bans. on the same charges of sedition. These incidents, along with many other minor ones, make evident the plight faced by the media in Tanzania.

Despite constitutional provision for freedom of speech and access to information, legislation like the Newspaper Act infringes on the right to access information, not only by journalists, but by citizens as well. The government has, on a number of occasions, suppressed information on the pretext of threats to national security using the National Security Act (1970), while the Public Leadership Code of Ethics Act (1995) makes it an offense to publish the declaration of assets and liabilities the code requires of public leaders. The Broadcasting Service Act (1993) allows the communication regulatory authority to close media stations at will.

With the proposed new constitution spelling out improved freedoms and containing an entirely new chapter on the Bill of Rights, the amendment and repeal of such draconian laws are imperative and are recommended by the Legal and Human Rights Centre (LHRC), a Tanzanian nongovernmental organization. The LHRC’s 2013 Human Rights Report2See http://www.humanrights.or.tz/downloads/tanzania-human-rights-report-2013.pdf. indicates the challenges the media face. It claims, for instance, that continued harassment and attacks on journalists undermine press freedoms and further recommends their increased protection by the state.

In the meantime, the government, acting through the ruling party Chama Cha Mapinduzi (CCM), sees state censorship of information as a means to control the electorate ahead of the general elections, while the Media Council of Tanzania (MCT), Media Owners Association of Tanzania, and Tanzania Editors Forum continue to campaign for press freedoms. The Tanzania chapter of the Media Institute of Southern Africa (MISA), an advocacy NGO, continues to play a crucial role in reporting violations of media freedoms, as well as by providing support to journalists. These institutions have also made meaningful contributions to the draft constitution.

Press freedom is an important element of the democratization process. The freedom to report critically and question decisions promotes transparency and accountability and helps build robust, open, and democratic institutions. With Tanzania a member of the Open Government Partnership (OGP), reforming retrogressive legislation should be a priority. Tanzania’s OGP Action Plan is focused on the four pillars of transparency, accountability, citizens’ participation, and technology and innovation. Increased media freedoms and citizens’ access to information are essential to attaining these goals and consolidating democratic governance and political stability.

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