Critical minds in Tanzania have a hard time with Magufuli

Monday December 19 2016

Ten years ago, a Kenyan cartoonist caused an uproar when, in one of his drawings, he depicted Tanzanian journalists licking the feet of the president at a press conference — instead of engaging him with questions.

The president was Jakaya Kikwete, a self-styled friend of the media, who enjoyed a cosy relationship with the fourth estate in the first two years of his administration.

The cartoon may have been in bad taste but not much has changed a decade later — even with a new president.

Of course, there is a difference between the two presidents: While Kikwete would wear a smile as his government harassed you, President Magufuli frowns as he stares down at critics.

It took Kikwete nine years to enact two draconian acts – the Cybercrime Act 2015, and the Statistics Act 2015 – but it has taken Dr Magufuli only one year to put in place the much criticised Media Services Act 2016. Under last law, a journalist has to be registered by a regulatory body under the direct control of the government in order to practise in the country.

In just one year, according to lawyer and opposition chief whip Tundu Lissu, 42 social media commentators have been harassed and arrested.


For example, Member of Parliament for Arusha Urban Godbless Lema, has been behind bars for sharing a “dream” he had about President Magufuli. The dream was critical of the president’s leadership style, and what Mr Lema termed Magufuli’s “deification of the presidency” at the expense of democracy. Mr Lema’s lawyers are still struggling to bail him out.

Recently, police in Dar es Salaam arrested Maxence Mello, the founder and owner of Jamii Forums, a popular online platform. He was denied bail, with some senior officers being quoted citing “instructions from above.” Mr Mello was charged on Friday at a Dar es salaam court with using a domain name not registered in Tanzania and failure to comply with an order to disclose data in his possession. He was denied bail and returned to the remand prison.

READ: Tanzania charges editor of whistle-blowing website

Mr Melo was released on Monday on cash bail.

Tanzania Jamii Forums has frequently been the source of stories involving corruption and helped expose a corrupt energy deal, which was subsequently picked up by the mainstream Tanzanian media.

The Magufuli government has also banned live coverage of parliamentary sessions, political rallies and demonstrations. A number of media outlets critical of the government have also been closed down.

READ: Now Tanzania gagging the opposition both in and out of parliament

With Magufuli, it would appear the government wants to control and run every business – including communication.

When it comes to media freedom and freedom of expression, Tanzania is not what it used to be.

Additional reporting by Beatrice Materu.