Forget 8 o’clock news; it is all going down on Twitter Republic

Monday July 25 2022

Hundreds of young and old Tanzanians have taken to what has been dubbed the “Twitter Republic”, where very important national issues are being debated with more seriousness than can be found in our rubber-stamp of a parliament. FILE PHOTO


Ever wondered what the phrase “unintended consequences” means and how it operates as a rule? I have, and I think my wonderment will not end any time soon.

For example, I have watched the way online platforms have evolved in our midst, and what caused this situation. My generation grew up in the age of the radio and the newspaper. The news on the radio was at some special time, say 8 o’clock at night, and the whole family, or section of the village, sat still and listened.

In my townlet, far above sea level and often chilly, the news as we grew up always seemed to be about something really exciting and the young mind was glued onto the mysterious voice that came to us via the tin-and-plastic contraption carrying the voice whose owner we could not see.

Around the story of the capture and murder of Congo’s Patrice Emery Lumumba, our fathers would argue whether Gamal Abdel Nasser of Egypt or Kwame Nkrumah of Ghana were going to intervene militarily against Joseph Kasavubu and Moise Tshombe to salvage what remained of that unfortunate country.

Heated debates ensued, and all sorts of conjecture would be bandied around, including the then (to me) incomprehensible Cold-War suggestion that Moscow and Washington were gearing for the final atomic Armageddon on the banks of the Congo river.

That was how our elders got the news and commentary. Those who were a little literate would be looking for the rare newspaper when it arrived, a week after the news. Such was our journalism, and such was our upbringing into the world of news. Slowly, we got used to radio and television, and newspapers assumed a new poignancy and depth.


But we grew fast, and in no time at all got used to changing modes of news sharing, tempered by the radio and television talk shows and newspaper scoop and op-ed column, exposing wrongdoing and castigating the culprits.

But all along, the news and opinion censor was with us, and a lot of those appointed as editors in state-controlled outlets (most were of this nature) were no more than resident censors, sent to “cut” what was deemed offensive before it got printed or broadcast. Such were the Ben Mkapas of our news habitat.

A number of us had to make do with what little freedom allowed us, and often the more stubborn individuals found themselves removed from their newsrooms, and in many cases assigned to other duties that involved no journalistic activity.

With the opening up of political and economic spaces in the 1990s, Tanzania witnessed the flowering of a vibrant media scene in which numerous newspapers, magazines, periodicals, radio and television stations sprouted and dynamised information sharing and significantly raised the levels of public intellectual and political intercourse.

That was to last until somewhere in the past 15 or so years, when a new president decided, on his own, that there was “too much” press freedom, and that he was not going to tolerate it. He put in place laws that seriously curtailed media investigation; research and statistical inquiries; online media content sharing and other areas where the president’s men and women thought scribes were going too far.

The laws enacted under John Magufuli are still in force, and I have no cause to believe they will be scrapped anytime soon. Despite recent declarations suggesting that President Samia Suluhu’s government intends to remove some of the more egregious restrictions on these areas of public discourse, there is little likelihood that we are soon going to see the return of the media liberalisation of the times of Ali Hassan Mwinyi, the man credited with the reforms of the early nineties.

That is because the individuals placed in key posts and charged with killing media are still in their offices, the laws are still extant and many traditional media practitioners have migrated, to engage in petty trading or small-scale farming, just to run away from the Gulag-ish conditions of the media in this country.

But now, there is a light at the end of the tunnel, and I am sure this is not an on-coming train. Clubhouse is happening. Hundreds of young and old Tanzanians have taken to what has been dubbed the “Twitter Republic”, where very important national issues are being debated with more seriousness than can be found in our rubber-stamp of a parliament.

This is a growing and liberating trend that has wrenched freedom of speech from the clutches of the government censor and placing it in the hands of citizens all around the globe who only need to have airtime for their Twitter account and a couple of hours to spare a couple of times during the week.

Better, Twitter has been married to bluetooth. In a public place – coffee or more non-halal stuff – one mobile phone is tethered to a speaker and all 20 customers can follow the arguments.

I do not have the statistics but it is probable that on a busy evening, up to 30,000 Twitter citizens could be connected.

It is more than parliament!