As the October 31 national elections draw near, Tanzania's media is in a frenzy trying to cover the close race between the two leading presidential candidates. But government threats and draconian media laws may be getting in the way of objective coverage.
All eyes are on the contest between incumbent President Jakaya Kikwete of the ruling Chama cha Mapinduzi (CCM), or "Party for Change," and a surprisingly successful challenger, Dr. Wilbroad Slaa from the Chama cha Demokrasia na Maendeleo (CHADEMA), or "Progressive Democratic Party."Kikwete, who won the 2005 elections with a landslide 80 percent of the vote, has seen his popularity plunge this month to 38 percent, according to Tanzanian polls. "Slaa has emerged as an unexpected presidential candidate and his message of change is resonating with voters anxious for a new direction," political commentator Azaveli Lwaitama told Reuters. Whether the Tanzanian press feel at liberty to cover this tight race is another matter. Critical reporting on the government during this sensitive time appeared risky after Ministry of Information Permanent Secretary Sethi Kamuhanda toured print media offices earlier this month, threatening to shutter any media house that "put the government in a bad light," state television reported. More than 50 human rights and media organizations issued a joint statement last week, claiming the government has threatened the press in advance of the forthcoming elections. Since polling began, the Registrar of Newspapers, a government-run licensing agency, has been busy issuing letters to newspapers, warning against any negative coverage of the government, local journalists told CPJ. Three private weeklies, Mwanahalisi, Raia Mwena, and Tanzania Daima have all been warned by the Registrar to avoid coverage deemed "inciteful" by the government or face suspension. "Such kinds of threats have been common from the Registrar of Newspapers, whom the minister [of information] uses as a means to enforce self-censorship," the chairman of the Tanzania Editors' Forum, Absalom Kibanda, told me. The country's leading Kiswahili daily, Mwananchi, received two letters from the Registrar recently threatening to suspend the paper for negative government coverage, Managing Editor Theophil Makunga told me. "For quite a long time now and during this election campaign period, in particular, your newspaper has been writing negative stories about the government," one of the Registrar's letters claimed. "Should you continue publishing the articles, the government will not hesitate to suspend or deregister your newspaper as per the laws of the land." The letter was signed by the Registrar's deputy director, Raphael Hokororo. Mwananchi is considered the most balanced and professional newspaper in the country and commands the highest readership, which makes this threat particularly troubling, the former Tanzania Editors' Forum chairperson, Sakina Datoo, told me. The Registrar's letters to Mwananchi alleged that the paper had denigrated the government but provided no examples of material the authorities deemed offensive, Makunga said. "The Registrar has no argument at all," he told me. "That's why they use sweeping, generalized statements in their allegations." Since the presidential campaigns started on August 20, Makunga said, his paper has not received a single complaint from any of the political parties participating in the race. Makunga fears the ruling party may shut down his paper using the vague allegations put forth in the Registrar's letter. "It's a sign of desperation on the side of the CCM. They believe if Mwananchi continues to report objectively, CCM candidates will lose votes," he said. The paper has filed a complaint with the independent press ombudsman, the Media Council of Tanzania. But Hokororo, the Registrar's deputy director, told me that the Mwananchi staff has exaggerated the issue. "The letter was supposed to be a private letter but they published it to get media attention. It was a warning, not a threat as they have portrayed it," he said. Recent warnings aside, the Tanzanian government has reams of anti-press legislation it can dangle above the media's heads to ensure self-censorship. The Newspaper Act of 1976, for instance, allows the information minister wide discretionary powers to ban newspapers. "It gives the minister powers to close down any newspaper for 'inciting'. Since the term is not defined, it's up to the minister to interpret it as he or she wants," Datoo said. 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. The media laws in Tanzania "force all media to practice public relations and avoid investigative journalism," media analyst and Saut FM Producer Dotto Bulendu told me. Saut FM, a private station attached to St. Augustine's University, has faced its own challenges trying to cover the elections. Bulendu told me that he and Edwin Soko, a Saut FM reporter, received anonymous threats last month via text message accusing them of negative reporting on the ruling party. "The messages threatened to kill us if we continued to work at the station," he added. But the threats were somewhat misplaced; the Tanzanian Communications Regulatory Authority (TCRA) had already taken the station off the air in August. The Authority's public relations manager, Innocent Mungy, told me Saut FM had been closed on purely technical grounds because the radio signals interfered with aircraft communications. Bulendu is skeptical of the TCRA's findings. The station, he noted, has operated since 1997. "Why would we have signal interference problems now and not before?" he demanded. "Why just before the elections?" And he has little recourse: the 1993 Broadcasting Act empowers the TCRA to shut down any station at any time, he added. He hopes Saut FM will be back on the air this week, just days before the poll results. Over the years, press freedom monitors, including CPJ, have not identified many cases of Tanzanian authorities attacking the press, which makes the country appear to have a better media freedom record than many East African nations. But what happens in Tanzania is something more insidious: Thanks to the country's sweeping anti-press laws, the threat of closure by authorities is enough to curtail any wayward critics. For a ruling party facing a tight presidential race, that's a formidable advantage.