The Tanzanian government has for the third time banned a critical weekly newspaper for allegedly publishing articles that insulted President John Magufuli, adding to a growing list of actions against freedom of expression in the country.
Magufuli won the vote for his no nonsense anti-corruption stance but his term has been tainted by closure of two newspapers, arrest and jailing of a founder of a popular online platform (Jamii Forums), a police raid on Clouds TV and, signing into law the Media Services Act which critics argue is a restriction on the freedom of the press.
In the latest move against press freedom, the Tanzanian government has banned Mwanahalisi, accusing it of publishing false information, going against the journalists’ code of conduct and endangering national security with a series of articles published in January, April and September this year.
This is the second time this year that the government is banning a newspaper. On June 15, it banned a privately owned newspaper Mawio after it published a photo of Magufuli and former President Jakaya Kikwete and linked them to a corruption scandal in the mining sector. The newspaper was also closed for two years.
Mwanahalisi is no stranger to closures. In 2008, it was banned for three months and later in 2012 for two years, for publishing articles that were deemed seditious and insulting to the president, then Jakaya Kikwete. However, the newspaper went to court, won the case and was reopened.
In this latest case, Tanzania’s director of Information Services, Dr Hassan Abbasi stated in a letter that Mwanahalisi, is banned starting September 19 for two years.
“The decision has been taken in accordance with section 59 of the Media Services Act and 12, 2017, after several government efforts by the information department to remind the editors of this newspaper about the obligation to follow the principles of professionalism without success,” the letter reads in part. It also lists the five stories that were deemed insulting.
Jabir Idrissa, the Mwanahalisi editor said that the newspaper was going to seek court redress.
“We are saying we are not wrong; we are doing our job-journalism. We are doing journalism only that our style of doing is annoying the regime because we are exposing grand corruption,” Mr Idrissa told ACME. Mr Idrissa said he is ever now and then asked to explain why they published certain stories, and headlines.
“Almost every week, I am being questioned by the registrar of newspapers,” he said.
President Magufuli has been criticised for stifling the press since he took power in October 2015. In March this year, he told journalists that there are limits to freedom of expression.
“I would like to tell media owners – be careful, watch it. If you think you have that kind of freedom, (it is) not to that extent,” Magufuli said.
Thophil Makunga, the chairman of the Tanzania Editors Forum, said Magufuli’s regime has been the toughest on the media, compared to past presidents Julius Nyerere, Hassan Mwinyi, Mkapa and Kikwete.
“We are just praying that he changes attitude. So far, we are not seeing him changing,” Mr Makunga told ACME.
He added: “We are very worried about how media houses are going to survive. It is very difficult under this regime.”
Mr Makunga said the forum is planning to meet the government to discuss the way forward.
According to Amnesty International, a global human right advocacy organisation, the trend in Tanzania is worrying and are hoping “something will change very soon”.
“Barely two years since Magufuli came to power; there’s been a rise in restrictions on freedom of expression and freedom of the press. Media outlets have been closed and journalists have been arrested,” Mr Seif Magango told ACME.
In 2016, the founder of Jammii Forums, Maxence Melo was arrested and jailed after he refused to reveal the details of the forum’s contributors, and for running a website whose domain was not registered in Tanzania. Articles the Forums published had accused three companies of tax evasion. The cybercrime law makes it a legal requirement for all websites in Tanzania to have a co.tz domain name.
Mr Idrissa thinks that no journalist is safe in Tanzania. “When you have a regime which doesn’t want to hear the dissenting voice, even the media glorifying the president cannot be safe,” he said.