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How to survive in Tanzania's press

There is one simple rule for survival in Tanzania's media - whether you are an editor, reporter, columnist, printer, or even news vendor: don't be critical. Thanks to repressive laws on Tanzania's books, an article considered libelous by the state can get anyone in trouble, even prominent journalists such as Absalom Kibanda -- the chairman of the Tanzania Editor's Forum and managing editor of the popular Swahili daily Tanzania Daima ("Tanzania Forever").

The paper's saga began December 9 after police charged columnist Samson Mwigamba with sedition -- later changed to incitement -- over an article that claimed the police are often exploited by the government for political purposes. Mwigamba, who is also an opposition leader, argued that police were used to block demonstrations by his opposition party, Chadema. The police claimed the article incited police, prisons and military officers to withhold their respect and honor to their government, according to media consultant and veteran journalist Ndimara Tegambwage. Unable to pay the bail conditions, Mwingamba was detained for five days in prison in the capital, Dar-es-Salaam.

A week later, police summoned Absalom Kibanda for three hours of questioning for allowing the column to be published, defense lawyer Nyaronyo Kicheere said. On Tuesday, a Dar es Salaam magistrate charged Kibanda with incitement and confiscated his passport. Although this trend is changing, Kicheere told me, the police in Tanzania often "double as prosecutors. For the Tanzanian police to investigate, arrest, and later turn up in court is not a new thing."

Just to make sure no one is off the hook, the group managing editor of Mwananchi Communications, which publishes MwananchiThe CitizenSunday CitizenMwananchi Jumapili and Mwanaspoti, has also twice been summoned to court this week for printing the allegedly inciteful article.

Journalists walk on eggshells to avoid Tanzania's litany of legislation. Take the Newspaper Act of 1976: if an article is considered by authorities to have "seditious intent," it is not only the writer that is affected. The editor, the printer, the vendor -- almost anyone marginally linked to the article -- could face heavy fines and a two-year prison sentence. Worse, the government can suspend the publication, apprehend the machine that printed the article, and sell it for government revenue. Under these circumstances, who would raise a critical finger?

Surprisingly, many Tanzanian papers do try. Last month, the former minister of good governance, Wilson Masilingi, filed a defamation case against the local Swahili newspaper, RAI, for a column that accused him of soliciting funds from his voters to buy an apartment, according to local journalists. The court ordered the paper to pay 15 million Tanzanian shillings (around US$9,000) in damages and publish apologies on the first and second pages of the paper in words Masilingi would be comfortable with. Such hefty fines could cripple a paper -- especially taking into account that the average journalist salary in Tanzania is around US$58 to US$72 a month, according to a study by the BBC World Service Trust.

If the threat of hefty fines, suspensions and arrests were not enough to muzzle Tanzania's press, public officials and prominent businessmen can always use the courts to make sure the story never emerges.

Business tycoon Yusuf Manji knows this well. The business mogul, accused of mass corruption by various independent media houses, has managed to file at least nine court injunctions against the press in order to prevent critical stories from being published. The quantity and extensive powers of these injunctions induced the Media Owners Association of Tanzania to write to Principle Judge Fakihi Jundu. "The situation has deteriorated to an extent where it would be inexcusable for the Media Owners Association of Tanzania to remain silent," the letter read.  The association's executive secretary, Henry Muhanika, accused the courts of granting Manji "blanket ex parte injunctions" that maintain excessive restrictions applying to "everything under the sun."

The Newspaper Act and court injunctions are only two in an arsenal of what one Tanzanian commission cites as 40 pieces of legislation identified as unfriendly to the press, Kicheere told me. Investigative reporting on any area the government considers classified is a punishable offense under the National Security Act. Later laws, such as the Civil Service Act and Public Leadership Code of Ethics Act, block access to information for journalists.

Cases of lengthy imprisonments, attacks, even killings of journalists that arise in other countries in East Africa are hardly present in Tanzania. But this may well be due to the fact that the critical stories are already shelved by court orders or that reporters, editors and printers are afraid to publish them. Tanzanian authorities will continue to enjoy the veneer of upholding press freedom as long as the legal machinery keeps the mask in place.

December 23, 2011 9:39 AM ET |

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