Over the last decade, Tanzania’s media space has opened up considerably, which explains why Freedom House describes the country’s press status as being “partly free.” From mostly government and ruling party run media houses, the country has evolved to possess one of the most vibrant and diverse media environments on the continent.
However, recent actions by the Kikwete administration are threatening to roll back years of progress on press freedoms.
It began with the passage in parliament last week of the Statistics Act that analysts say is in danger of criminalizing journalism.
The act has made it illegal for anyone to publish or communicate statistics unauthorized by the National Bureau of Statistics (NBS), a government body. According to the new law, Tanzanian journalists using data from government sources before they were made public or information unapproved by NBS could spend up to 12 months in jail.
On the regulatory front, this past weekend the government pulled two bills from parliamentary debate that it claims claimed will deepen press freedoms in the country. While media advocacy groups argue that the administration is rushing through the legislation without consulting enough relevant stakeholders or allowing for enough open debate on their contents, the laws would’ve gone a long way towards improving on the status quo.
The current environment is deeply unfriendly to a flourishing free press. While the constitution guarantees freedom of speech, certain laws put significant limitations on an open media. The National Security Act makes it a criminal offense to reveal information the government deems a “classified matter.” Meanwhile, the Newspaper Registration Act gives the Minister of Information the authority to ban a publication if they are of the opinion that the decision is in the “interest of peace and good order” to do so.
Recently, the government banned the Kenyan-based regional newspaper the East African for “circulating in the country without being properly registered, contrary to section 6 of the Newspaper Act number 3 of 1976.” The decision is rather odd, considering that the paper has been publishing in the country for two decades. The real reason behind the ban may have something to do with a cartoon published in the paper that a government spokesman said had “demonstrated bad taste and disrespect to the person and office of the president.”
Reacting to the news, a U.S State Department official told the paper that the incident underscores the need for Tanzania to update its media laws, something that it is still struggling to do.
Meanwhile, social media and the blogosphere, have become an important avenue of public discourse in the country. But there are fears that a new cyber crimes act could end up limiting speech and the free spread of information online.