Minister of ‘Information,’ you killed journalism, now live with the result

Saturday December 23 2023

Editors and senior journalists demonstrate against the suppression of the press freedom in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. PHOTO | FILE | NMG


Ever wondered why all our governments in this part of the world contain someone called “minister of information”?

I ask this question because the role of such a person, and the ministry he or she heads, is shrouded in secrecy. For, indeed, what is he/she supposed to do 24/7? When the minister leaves home in the morning and is driven in one of the ubiquitous gas-guzzlers to office, what does he/she do all day till he/she is driven back home in the evening?

I am really serious here. Someone responsible for information would probably sit down on a daily basis and hand out information on matters pertaining to the constituency she or he is responsible for, a sector of the economy, a region of the country or the whole country.

Such a thought conjures up images of a huge newsroom full of television screens, teleprinters and young men and women on laptops and mobile phones pacing up and down the length and width of the arena of a newsroom — sharp pencils in hand — barking questions and consigning to their notebooks and computer screens and servers what they receive from the networks and correspondents.

Read: Tanzanian media calls for review of harsh laws

In such a scenario, maybe the title bestowed on the man or woman at the helm would be justified, a little. But the reality is far from this kind of scenario. Ministers of “information” are actually paid hefty salaries and allowances to keep information out of the reach of those who need it — that is to say, the people.


Just consider this recent experience in our country over the past month or so: The country’s Number Two goes missing in public for a couple of weeks and the Ministry of “Information” keeps its mouth shut as to his whereabouts. Now, the country’s vice-president is a very important official — literally a heartbeat away from the top — and people are used to seeing him at various activities, some of which have become second nature to him.

Ill, or worse

When the silence continues for about a month, people, as is their wont, start to speculate: Perhaps he is ill, or worse…Still, the Ministry of “Information” offers no information.

But then, all of a sudden, the vice-president makes an unscheduled appearance, and talks about the anxiety that social media has caused in the country by engaging in speculation, and even suggesting he may have died. He does not talk about where he has been or what he was doing.

Shortly after, the minister for “Information” finally comes out of his cocoon to decry the said social media for said speculation, promising to take action against the culprits, the social media.

So, now, the country’s social media has, once again, been put on notice that the Ministry of “Information” is coming after them for the sin of speculation. Seeing what the ministry of “Information” is capable of doing in the pursuit of turning Tanzania into an information-less society, no one should take this as idle talk.

Read: Terrorism, suppression stifle African journalists' voices

Social media is still struggling to find its feet in a media-hostile environment. Since the days of President John Magufuli, the Ministry of “Information” has been trying to keep a firm thumb on the activities of the media generally, including passing laws trying to define who is and who is not a journalist, and who can and who cannot practise journalism.

So, now we see clearly what the Ministry of “Information” does from nine to five, 24/7, Christmas to Christmas: Prevent information from being shared, create an information vacuum, and when anyone tries to breach that vacuum, squash!

Fuelling speculation

It is instructive that when the vice-president finally made a public appearance, he did not say where he had been and what he had been doing, only that he had been abroad on important business, further fuelling the speculation.

And yet the public is entitled to have this information because the vice-president placed as high as it gets, a public figure whose welfare is of interest to the public, which employs him and pays for everything he does.

It is unconscionable that one would expect the taxpayers to remain unmoved by the prolonged absence of their top official without explanation.

As for the burning candle posted on social media side-by-side with the picture of the vice-president, I tend to agree that it was in bad taste. But particularly bad taste had already been exhibited a few years back when top officials had gone around assuring people that Magufuli had sent his greetings to his people, while knowing that the man was gone. It is so bad that, even today, I wonder if anyone can tell with certainty the exact date of the former president’s death!

So, what we see today is simply another case of unintended consequences: Killing traditional media through bans, closures and other punitive acts has spawned an intractable social media that laughs at gatekeeping strictures and thumps its nose at the press censor; it thrives on anonymity, as it lurks in the shadows, poking fun at the thought police. Why is the Minister of “Information” worried?