Ahead of elections, Tanzania’s regulator is used as a cudgel against the media

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Tanzania's incumbent President and presidential candidate of ruling party Chama Cha Mapinduzi (CCM) John Magufuli (center) arrives to give a speech during the official launch of the party's campaign for the October general election in Dodoma, Tanzania, on August 29, 2020. Tanzania's communications regulator has targeted the media with fines and shutdowns ahead of the election. (AFP/Ericky Boniphace)

ON August 27, the second day of mainland Tanzania’s official campaign period leading up to October 28 elections, authorities ordered privately owned broadcasters Clouds TV and Clouds FM to replace their regular programming with an hours-long apology until midnight and then halt programming altogether for a week.

The over-the-top display of repentance was dictated by the Tanzania Communications Regulatory Authority, TCRA, on the grounds that both broadcasters had broken the law by airing parliamentary candidate nomination results without verifying the information with Tanzania’s electoral commission.

This kind of punishment is becoming more common in Tanzania. In 2020, the TCRA has ordered at least one online television station, a news site, and at least four other broadcasters to temporarily suspend programming, and fined at least 10 other media outlets, according to CPJ’s review of TCRA’s public statements. The regulator cited violent and sexual content as the reason it penalized some outlets; others were punished for allegedly misleading or biased reporting on topics like politics and the COVID-19 pandemic.

The regulator’s aggressive stance – the latest development in a years-long decline in press freedom in Tanzania documented by CPJ – is undermining the ability of the press to cover the upcoming elections independently, according to a dozen journalists in Tanzania who spoke to CPJ in September and October.

“There is an atmosphere of fear—a deeply ingrained fear for journalists. Self-censorship has set in. People prefer not to do things rather than do them and risk censure from TCRA or the ministry [of information],” said Jenerali Ulimwengu, a columnist with weekly TheEastAfrican newspaper and a former Tanzanian parliamentarian.

Ulimwengu, who spoke to CPJ via messaging app in September and October, said he thinks the media is shying away from criticizing Chama Cha Mapinduzi, CCM, Tanzania’s ruling party.

Incumbent President John Magufuli is running for reelection against 14 other candidates, according to reports. As the vote draws near, Tanzanian authorities have broadened their crackdown on civil society and the opposition, leading to concerns among political observers and rights organizations that the conditions in the country won’t “engender free and fair elections” as Ringisai Chikohomero, a researcher with African non-profit Institute for Security Studies, put it.

Journalists who spoke to CPJ in December 2015 were hopeful that the newly-elected Magufuli might reform anti-press cybercrimes and statistics laws and stymie a problematic proposed media law. Instead, over the past five years CPJ has documented a bludgeoning of press freedom through retaliatory prosecutions, arbitrary media shutdowns, and restrictive legislation.

In July, Tanzania updated its 2018 online content regulations, entrenching requirements for internet news providers, including bloggers, to pay exorbitant registration fees to TCRA and strengthening prohibitions on broad categories of content, including political demonstrations and natural disasters, according to the rules, which CPJ reviewed. The updated regulations also further empower TCRA, a self-described “quasi independent Government body” established in 2003 to oversee electronic media and manage frequencies, to act as an enforcer.

“TCRA has moved beyond a regulator and taken on a seemingly censorious role,” Maria Sarungi-Tsehai, director of the independent Kwanza Online TV, told CPJ via messaging app in September.

Khalifa Said, an independent journalist who spoke to CPJ in September, recalled interviewing a videographer to work with him on a project who was so fearful that he requested a clause in his contract absolving him of liability should the regulator come calling.

Officials at TCRA did not respond to CPJ’s emails requesting comment in September and October. CPJ also contacted Tanzania’s information minister, who has the power to appoint TCRA’s director general as well as board members. In a phone call, the minister, Harrison Mwakyembe, declined to comment, saying he was preoccupied with elections. He referred CPJ to the government spokesperson, Hassan Abbasi, but he did not respond to CPJ’s texts or calls.

In April TCRA suspended Mwananchi, a Kiswahili-language newspaper, from publishing online for six months for posting an old video of Magufuli in a busy fish market. At the time, people familiar with the matter told CPJ the video had been construed to show the president was acting imprudently amid the COVID-19 pandemic. In July, the regulator hit Kwanza Online TV with an 11-month ban for sharing an American embassy COVID-19 travel warning, as CPJ documented. Mwananchi came back online on October 16, according to reports on its website and on TheCitizen, which is owned by the same company.

Chambi Chachage, a Tanzanian political commentator and a post-doctoral research associate at Princeton University, said that while some regulation is necessary, he was concerned by what he called the inconsistent and arbitrary application of the rules.

“Who decides you’re going to be banned for a week? For a year?” said Chachage, who is based in the United States, in a video call with CPJ.

Between January and April, the Tanzania Human Rights Defenders Coalition, THRDC, documented the prosecution of at least seven journalists and bloggers, for allegedly failing to register websites and YouTube pages with the TCRA, according to the Coalition’s public statements. The Coalition, which is an umbrella body for local rights groups, said it had documented a total of at least 13 people prosecuted during this period; two were convicted and paid the minimum fine of five million Tanzanian shillings (US$2,150) rather than go to prison for 12 months.

In August and September, CPJ spoke to three people who had been prosecuted under this law who said the cost of registration is too prohibitive and that they live in fear of the possible penalties. “It is cheaper for me to go to prison for a year than to pay this fine,” said blogger Jabir Johnson, the only one of the three who agreed to be named and whose court case is ongoing.

The regulator has also taken aim at local media for using foreign content. In August, the TCRA issued warnings to four Tanzanian radio stations for rebroadcasting a BBC interview of opposition presidential candidate Tundu Lissu, according to a TCRA statement.

These warnings followed changes to broadcasting rules in June which require local stations to be licensed with TCRA in order to run any content other than their own, according to reports. The rules also include a vague stipulation that broadcasters must involve a government official in any dealings with foreigners, without providing specifics.

Officials have explained the rules as a way to keep track of partnerships with foreign companies and to ensure that foreign content adheres to local standards, according to media reports and a statement from TCRA.

“We remain very concerned about the new regulation, as it seems to be a tool intended to control what media in Tanzania will be able to publish in the future, ultimately putting the public at a disadvantage,” the head of DW’s Africa service, Claus Stäcker, told CPJ via email though he said that all of the German broadcaster’s Tanzanian partners had received the new permit without delays.

In an August 31 statement, the United States Agency for Global Media, USAGM, which oversees the broadcaster Voice of America, VOA, said that some of its Tanzania affiliates had  “promptly ceased carrying internationally produced programs” when the regulations became public. In an October 15 email, USAGM told CPJ that 23 of the agency’s 24 partner stations are now carrying VOA content; one is still awaiting a TCRA permit to do so.

USAGM told CPJ it does not believe the new broadcasting regulations would have any impact on the VOA’s coverage of the elections. However, local journalists who spoke to CPJ are less optimistic in their outlook.

“We are trying to be professional and balanced, but not even this will protect you. Right now, as a journalist, you will struggle,” said a reporter with Watetezi TV, an outlet owned by the THRDC. The reporter requested anonymity for fear of reprisal.

– Oct. 17, 2020 @ 10:09 GMT |

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