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Tanzania’s president Kikwete struggles to convince activists over press laws

It ain’t easy being me
By Omar Mohammed
Published Last updated This article is more than 2 years old.

President Jakaya Kikwete is not going into his retirement in peace.

As he prepares to leave office in 2016, the passage of the Statistics and Cyber Crimes bills have led to accusations that his government is criminalizing journalism and turning something as innocuous as creating a meme online into a potential illegal act.

Despite signing up to the Open Government Partnership (OGP) last year, a multilateral initiative that aims to deepen government transparency, and his promise to introduce a Freedom of Information Act, free press advocates argue that he has betrayed those commitments with the laws’ passage. And now activists have begun a petition imploring the president to reverse his decision.

‘The first victims of this is the media,’ Maria Sarungi Tsehai, a Tanzanian commentator, told the Washington Post of the consequences of the bills. ‘They are the ones publishing statistics to the much broader public.’

Reuters/Emmanuel Kwitema
Since the introduction of multiparty democracy in 1995, Tanzania’s media space is one of the most vibrant on the continent.

Not everyone agrees. Some researchers are concerned with what they deem to be the problematic use of public data, by the media and others.

‘There is a problem of incorrect statistics, generally speaking,’ a fellow of the Tanzania Academy of Sciences, who requested anonymity as they were not authorized to speak publicly about the matter, told Quartz Africa. ‘What the government of Tanzania is trying to do is put in place measures just to make sure that [public] statistics are correct and valid and balanced.’

The debate over the Statistics Bill, especially, has been rather reactionary, she says. ‘There has just been a visceral reaction to this, and the problem with visceral reactions is, the people with the loudest voices, are the ones who are heard.’

Critics of Kikwete argue, however, that this bill is designed to help the ruling party retain power ahead of the general elections in October.

But the researcher says presidential polls have nothing to do with the need for the bill. The issue has been in the works for almost 10 years is the argument.

What has also been missing in this debate is the voice of ordinary Tanzanians. A new poll by Twaweza, a civil society organization that works in East Africa, shows that Tanzanians, 80% in fact, believe that the government should be as transparent as possible.

The poll also reveals that people feel that government bodies are usually quite transparent.

And on the specific elements of the proposed Freedom of Information Act, majority believe there should be penalties for officials who choose not to abide by it.

📬 A periodic dispatch from the annual session of the United Nations General Assembly in NYC.

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