Tanzania: Is our media legislation from Uzbekistan?

The Tanzania government has over the past couple of years been outdoing itself in trying to make sure that the little media space that exists in the country is dead and buried. Alas, it may succeed.

President John Magufuli has revealed himself to be a particularly anti-democratic ruler by attacking any and all institutions that provide breathing space for healthy dialogue to take place. He has effectively banned politics except in a few exceptional cases that he has himself prescribed.

He has sought to constrict parliamentary practice, and he has publicly called on members of the judiciary to do what he says. The attack on the media has to be seen as the proverbial nail in the coffin of democracy in this country.

I have over the years called on Tanzanians to be vigilant and protect jealously any gains won in the pro-democracy struggle, warning time and again that nothing that has been achieved can be considered irreversible. Now I realise that even I had not fully understood what I was talking about.

In addition to a draconian law against cyberspace infractions passed earlier, our absentminded legislators have passed the so-called Media Services Act (MSA) of 2016, which should have been called the Media Suppression Act. Upon reading this obnoxious piece of legislation, I asked one Member of Parliament whether they had imported the Stalinist law from Kyrgyzstan or Uzbekistan; he seemed clueless as to what I was on about.

I mean, just imagine that an information minister who does not know information from his elbow is, along with his director, empowered to decide who is a journalist and who is not, by registering them and deregistering them at will; that defamation, which everybody knows to belong in the realm of civil litigation as a tort, is criminalised; that no one anywhere may communicate information about floods in their village or an invasion by locusts unless they hold a journalism diploma and are registered with the government; that the publication of fake news can earn one up to five years of incarceration plus hefty fines; that the government can decide what information every media outlet must carry “in the national interest…”

In the early 1990s, Chief Justice Nyalali (now deceased) advised the government to repeal some 40 laws that he found “oppressive.” The government has since ignored him royally, and instead they have chosen to enact laws that are worse than the 40 Nyalali wanted struck out. If you complain against these mild laws, you ain’t seen nothin’ yet.

Magufuli’s approach seems to be to clear the bush so that he remains the only show in town. He has dismissed out of hand suggestions that he revive the stalled constitutional process, which his predecessor, Jakaya Kikwete, initiated and then killed, stating, “Let me straighten the country first,” oblivious to the wisdom that no one person can “straighten” a country on their own.

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By Jenerali Ulimwengu

Jenerali Ulimwengu is chairman of the board of the Raia Mwema newspaper and an advocate of the High Court in Dar es Salaam.