The ban of a weekly newspaper in Tanzania has heightened concerns among observers that the government of president John Magufuli is intent on exerting pressure on journalists and stifling freedom of expression.
The privately-owned Mawio paper was banned for 24 months on June 15, with the government suspending both its print edition and online platforms. Tanzania’s information minister Harrison Mwakyembe said in a statement (in Kiswahili) that the paper was suspended for publishing the photos of two former presidents—Benjamin Mkapa and Jakaya Kikwete—on its June 15-21 edition and linking them to a government probe into allegations of misconduct in the mining sector.
A recent government committee estimated that the UK-listed Acacia Mining underpaid Tanzania tens of billions of dollars in gold and copper exports since 1998—but stopped short of mentioning the former presidents.
This is the second time in two years that the government has banned Mawio. In Jan. 2016, the government invoked the 1976 Newspaper Act to deregister the weekly saying it engaged in “inciteful” coverage of the tense situation in Zanzibar following the 2015 general elections. Observers now say the ban shows that all is not rosy for the fourth estate in Tanzania and that the government is getting increasingly intolerant of criticism in the press and social media.
“We are extremely concerned that Tanzania is using public order as an excuse to frustrate the flow of information and public debate,” Angela Quintal of the Committee to Protect Journalists, said. “A two-year ban is tantamount to closing the publication.”
Over the last decade, as the media space in Tanzania has opened up, the slew of laws that give officials a broad discretion to restrict media organizations on the basis of national security or public interest has increased too. In 2015, former president Kikwete signed a controversial cybercrime law that gives authorities sweeping powers to jail those who offend the president, contradicting legal and international human rights standards. The passage of the Statistics Act in March 2015, which made the publication of any data not approved by the National Bureau of Statistics illegal, also drew condemnation from critics. In Nov. 2016, Magufuli signed the Media Services Bill into law, replacing independent media oversight mechanisms with a government-controlled one, and requiring all journalists to get accreditation from a government-appointed board.
All these laws have coalesced into creating an unfriendly environment for the Tanzanian media, where the constitutional guarantees for freedom of speech does not necessarily equate with freedom of the press. Last year, the weekly paper Mseto was closed for publishing a story linking Magufuli to corruption during the elections. The Nairobi-based The East African newspaper was also banned from the country in 2015 for a year, for what some said was publishing a cartoon depicting cronyism in the east African nation.
On his end, president Magufuli—who is also known as “the Bulldozer” for his strict leadership style—has not inspired much confidence in the media. He has instead warned them that press freedom has its limits. During the appointment of Mwakyembe as information minister, he said: “I would like to tell media owners—be careful, watch it. If you think you have that kind of freedom, (it is) not to that extent.”