The regional and international media are holding on to the flickers of hope, following Tanzanian President Suluhu Samia’s meeting with Tanzanian editors last week, the first such forum in the country in a long time. The meeting also saw the President share Covid-19 case data with the public.
The event might not mean much elsewhere, but in a country such as Tanzania, which has witnessed a relentless assault on journalism and freedom of expression, the gesture cannot pass without ceremony. It is common for governments to inherit bad laws, and many also make their own bad laws.
Samia inherited such a situation in Tanzania, where the previous administration — of which she was part — created a repressive environment only worse for media and human-rights defenders. While it is still early days, it is encouraging to see her reaching out to the media.
That, however, is only the beginning and the President has a full in-tray when it comes to rolling back the culture of oppression and repressive laws in Tanzania. In this, she will need the courage to set her own human-rights record and seize the opportunity for reforms while the public goodwill lasts.
By its very foundation, the state is by design and character coercive. It takes some freedoms away from the individual for the common good and in return for certain guarantees. Those guarantees are enshrined in rights and boundaries within a democratic framework.
Many of the laws enacted in Tanzania in the past five or so years fail the democracy test and don’t even conform to the country’s own constitutional standard. Where new laws were not introduced, the enforcement of previous obnoxious legislation became more aggressive.
A few examples suffice. The 2016 Media Services Act, which gives government agencies broad power to censor and limit the independence of the media, saw many media houses subjected to suspension and censorship. Besides introducing new offences and oversight powers that are open to abuse by government bureaucrats, the Act introduced steep rules for journalists’ accreditation. The 2015 Cybercrimes Act restricts free expression online while its cousin, the 2015 Statistics Act, criminalises the publication of statistics without government approval. Even the publication and dissemination of independent research was barred under this law. New regulations in 2018 exposed bloggers to prohibitive licensing fees under the Electronic and Postal Communications Act.
As the Fourth Estate, media need a conducive environment if they are to fulfil their watchdog role. Journalists need a safe legal and physical environment to play their role of informing, educating and entertaining society. Any restraints to media freedom need to meet the standards of a democratic and free society as set out in international charters and conventions. Killing the messenger is akin to killing the watchman and when journalists are forced to retreat into silence and self-censorship for their personal safety, the nation is the ultimate loser. In this, Tanzania is not alone as the region is replete with oppressive legal regimes for journalists.
This newspaper salutes President Samia for the steps she has so far taken to open up and allow Tanzanians to enjoy their rights. But she and her East African counterparts, need to initiate national dialogue on the future and rights of media. The dialogue should lead to the review the human rights regime and laws that impede freedom of expression and media.