Introduction Recently, Change Tanzania hosted a roundtable discussion regarding the state of Freedom of Expression (human rights) in Tanzania. More than 35 participants from different walks of media participated. Why now? Because recently, Tanzanian government has embarked in a number of actions, policies, practices that are hostile to most basic human rights such as the freedom of association, freedom of speech, right to information etc. Despite constant condemnation from local and international right defenders, the government seem not eager to change its course. The discussions were led by three different panels. The panelists were invited based on their professions and experiences. The moderator started by asking number of questions to the panelists and later on the audience were given chances to react based on what was said or come up with set of questions etc. I smell fear | Panel One The first panelists unanimously agreed that there is a general sense of fear inside Tanzanian media houses. From media owner, editors to the reporters who goes to collect stories -- all are now filled with a sense of insecurity. This is a result of recent development where entire media outlets are shut down by the government, editors and journalists are arrested and some even disappear completely, never to be seen again. Profit first! For the owners, this state of affair is uncharted waters.
No one wants to lose his investment and means of income. One participant confessed that, some owners have terminated their staff employment when ‘the boundaries’ were crossed. This has serious consequences in programing and stories planning. How many editors and journalists are prepared to risk their only source of incomes for the sake of professionalism? Very few. Twisted, selective laws enforcement According to the participants not only the foul play by the government is to be blamed but also the current legal structures. The laws governing media landscape in the country are still draconian despite recent reforms. Some government officials are misusing their power and selectively use existing laws to punish ‘rogue’ media houses. Surprisingly, some outlets may publish the same content but never gets punished simply because they belong into the right camp. In order to survive, the media is forced either to self-censor or be co-opted and start churning out government friendly content. To this end, the media lose its edge and cardinal role of holding those in power to account. According to one contributor, this is one of the reason people have lost interest in the mainstream media and embrace social media. The public knows when and what media turns itself into a ‘useful stenographer’. Another panelist who is both a Member of the Parliament and media owner, explained further, that the new Media Service Law prohibit the Minister of Information to ban or deregister a media outlet. It is a jurisdiction of the special Board but the Minister still misappropriate this authority. He blamed his colleagues at the Parliament for keeping quiet even when their own contributions in the house are censored via the Parliament’s media unit. All could change in few minutes if the MPs says enough is enough. Sources do not want to talk The aftermath of the state of fear has also affected the public.
One young journalist confessed, nowadays it’s so hard to get people to talk. They fear the repercussion. This creates headaches in the newsroom because they cannot fill the space by merely using opinions, hearsays or only anonymous sources. The recent example is the cashew nut saga where even the victims (business people and farmers) are afraid to speak up. Most government agencies are notorious in stonewalling, however there few progressive exceptions like Tanzania Commission for Universities (TCU) and Business Registrations and Licensing Agency (BRELA). Nevertheless, one veteran pointed out that part of the anxiety is self-inflicted. Media owners and their staff have gone extra miles by starting to run away from their own shadows. They avoid publishing even stories that are harmless like public information (those published by the Judiciary and Parliament). He went on and criticize his fellows that they lack self-confidence and use the fear agenda to justify laziness. Most contemporary journalists want shortcuts, do not want time to research more and chase sources. Another observation was, the international media is more freely to report stories unlike their local counterparts. The best examples are BBC, Voice of America, Deutsche Welle and others. The government cannot control what is broadcasted or published abroad. However, if these media have bureaus in the country, their staff and operations are still subjected to the current oppressive atmosphere.
Tanzanians are crybabies Another view emerged from the discussion was that, the current administration under President John Pombe Magufuli has just done what others in the past failed to do. The government is simply implementing the laws religiously without compromising. Both the rich and the poor; politicians and common mwananchi are treated the same before the law. A panelist who subscribes to this view added that, Tanzania was almost a lawless country. Laws existed but no one bothered to implement them. Now we have a strict enforcer, that’s why foul play cries are everywhere. No changes without pain. Bad law! | Panel Two The new media laws were not meant to harm but to solidify professionalism in the industry. This is an opening view of one of the panelists in the second session. She elaborates further that the media industry was full of unprofessional practitioners. Now the laws demand a diploma certificate as a minimum requirement. Another panelist adds that; the government was forewarned by legal experts even before the Media Service bill was passed into law. There were lots of red flags in some provisions. Interpretations of some of the clauses provide loopholes for misuse by the government officials. Worst of all, even the enforcers such as Police officers do not sufficiently understand the law. Journalists are not innocent as well since most of them are ignorant of the law governing their practices. However, there is general consensus that the current Media Service Act (2016) law is much better compared with the notorious and colonial Newspaper Act of 1976. The panel advised journalists to continue using it so that the legal experts can gather enough evidence to challenge it to the court and seek amendments. But one participant was not in favor of this approach.
He asked, how long should we wait while people are being harmed by the faulty law every day? No. We must scream so loud so that either the bad laws are amended or scrapped altogether! Read the signs! A word of advice from a famous political cartoonist and journalist to his counterparts, ‘learn to be shrewd!’. He shares his experience that he has been producing his arts for decades, new governing powers comes and go. The first thing he does to survive, is reading the signs on the wall and try to dance according to the tunes. He does not mean to compromise, but find creative ways to repackage stories even if they might have deemed offensive the authorities. Avoid unnecessary mistakes, don't leave them to chances. Journalists should act professionally always, never use their work to punish someone. Also, he encouraged journalists to use social media if their editors’ self-censorship becomes pervasive. Social media is revolutionary One free speech activist shared his testimony on how he exposed the biggest scandals at his University. He uncovered that the public-funded hostel had cracks on it walls just shortly after being launched by the President Magufuli. It was an indication of low standard. He posted the photos on social media which triggered a lot of harassment by the Police forces. He was arrested, suspended at the University though later was reinstated after being found no guilty. Yet, the government agency that built the hostel was exonerated after providing murky explanations. Along with Rights come Responsibilities With rights come responsibilities, reiterated another contributor. Even when we use social media, just like in traditional media, journalists must be wise and follow professional ethics. Senior journalists have a moral responsibility to mentor emerging journalists to use social media as an opportunity to advance their careers and not a free tool to tarnish other people’s image. Young journalists must avoid the temptation of becoming a social media socialite, influencer or superstar overnight by trumping others’ reputation. Also, there is a famous latin expression: ‘Ignorantia juris non excusat or ignorantia legis neminem excusat’ meaning ignorance of the law is no defense. Media personnel must learn what the laws says particularly the Media Services Act (2016), Access to Information Act (2016) and Cybercrimes Act (2015). The knowledge will help journalist, editors and owners avoid ‘landmines’ easily.
We prefer to be lied to | Panel Three One panelist went further and allege that, according to his experience as a blogger Tanzanians in general prefer lies over truth. It’s in our psyche to romanticize fantasies like celebrities’ lifestyles and scandals than hard news. He blames the education system which produce uncritical, uncreative and hollow-minded graduates. As a results the public consume every nonsense published by the unscrupulous media. The government should not be blamed on this, so he says. Media is business. So as a blogger, he makes a living through YouTube. He produces the content that the audience craves to win the viewership. He mixes up made-up content with half-truth just to get the numbers. And the public loves it! He asks the participants, ‘who is to blame? Content producers or the government? Why should we complain against the laws that are coming out to regulate us? We journalists should look within first before pointing fingers to the government. If we behave like pirate the government has a right to revoke our media licenses’. Freedom of expression has its limits. Even in the United States of America which is our model of individual rights, have what they call Patriot Act (2001). Anyone who praises terror acts, or use Al Qaeda jihad symbols is jailed. So, Tanzanians too are not exempted of responsibility. The panelists added that, in Tanzania it’s very rare or nearly impossible to see a journalist apologize for publishing untruthful story unless he/she is coerced to do so. Healthy criticism to the government and others outside the government is very important. What is unacceptable is insults. Opposition politicians should continue holding the government to account but with civility.
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