Tanzanian media under threat as doctor is beaten and newspaper closed down

Dr Ulimboka

Tanzania is rightfully proud of its record as a well-governed society, at least by the standards of its neighbours. It is an “island of peace”, as Tanzania’s leaders like to say. But the recent beating of a leading doctors’ representative and the suspension of a national newspaper have put this good reputation at risk.

Tanzania’s doctors are six months into an on/off strike over pay and conditions. They have a surprising level of popular support, given the impact on life and health that a doctors’ strike is bound to have. The Ministry of Health and the Prime Minister, Mizengo Pinda, have tried in vain to resolve the situation, with the doctors accusing government of negotiating in bad faith – making promises that convince the doctors to resume work, only to go back on their commitments later.

So far, nothing special – strike negotiations are rarely simple. But the situation deteriorated horribly on the night of June 26, when the doctors’ leading spokesperson, Dr Ulimboka, disappeared. He was found the following day, badly beaten and left for dead.

Official government statements have denied any involvement, and a Kenyan suspect has been arrested. But there is widespread belief that the government must have been involved in some way. After all, a persistent thorn in the government’s side had been attacked in suspicious circumstances. And the Tanzanian media rightly reported on this scepticism.

One paper, MwanaHalisi, went further. The paper, which has a reputation for fearless reporting that has repeatedly upset the government, went as far as to name an official in the President’s Office as being a secret service officer and being involved in the attack, under the headline “Here’s the man who attacked Ulimboka“(1. See translations in the original Swahili in footnotes below). This official, the paper alleged, called Dr Ulimboka and arranged to meet him in a Dar es Salaam bar. Details, timings, names and phone numbers were all published. The story appears to correspond with Dr Ulimboka’s own blurry statement, recorded from his hospital bed, that he was called for a late night meeting in a bar by a government official, whereupon he was attacked.

It could very reasonably be argued that MwanaHalisi went too far: by naming this official and accusing him so directly, the paper is very possibly in contempt of court. It could also be argued that the paper’s article was materially wrong in its allegations. Its evidence could be challenged. The paper could be taken to court for libel, a complaint could be registered with the Media Council of Tanzania (Tanzanian media’s self regulatory body), or the paper could be charged with contempt of court.

But the government has declined all these options. It chose instead to suspend the paper indefinitely, under the 1976 Newspaper Act, which allows the Minister of Information to do this without even requiring the Minister to justify his decision. This Act has been the subject of regular complaints by the media and others for many years.

In fact, the Ministry did explain its reasons in a statement: it was “due to the paper’s practice of writing inflammatory, hostile and false news and opinion with the intention of causing citizens to lose faith in state organs, a situation that could put at risk the peace and cohesion that prevails in the country.”(2)

The statement goes on to remind readers that the “freedom and rights of the media come with responsibilities,”(3) adding that “the government will not hesitate to take steps against media outlets that deliberately publish inciting content that threaten peace and security in our country.”(4)

MwanaHalisi’s Executive Editor, Saed Kubenea, said in response that “they are using this law to take away our freedom to think, to express opinions and to communicate. They’ve done this to MwanaHalisi. They’ve threatened other papers. This is dangerous.”(5)

And the Tanzania Editors’ Forum lent their support: “The decision to close MwanaHalisi is unacceptable. As we see it, the government is continuing to restrict the freedom of the press, with the goal of closing journalists’ mouths so that they don’t speak the truth about bad things that are done in our system of governance and society in general.”(6)

In the light of phone hacking and the Leveson Inquiry, it’s hard to argue with the government’s point that media rights come with responsibilities. But so do government powers. Closing down a paper in this way – and threatening to do the same to others – is hardly a responsible act.

It is out of proportion: why not challenge the paper in court? It is futile: the offending article is still easily available online. And it is counterproductive: if the goal is to protect Tanzania’s “peace and cohesion,” it would surely better for the government to ensure that the investigation into Dr Ulimboka’s attack is conducted openly, thoroughly and quickly. Otherwise, suspicions will grow and faith in state organs could diminish sharply. Or perhaps those state organs really do have something to hide?

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Originally posted on The Journalism Foundation, August 3, 2012.

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Footnotes
1. “Aliyeteka Ulimboka Huyu Hapa”
2. “kutokana na mwenendo wake wa kuandika habari na makala za uchochezi, uhasama na uzushi likiwa na nia ya kusababisha wananchi kukosa imani na vyombo vya dola hali inayoweza kuhatarisha amani na mshikamano uliopo nchini.”
3. “Uhuru na haki ya vyombo vya habari uendane na wajibu.”
4. “Serikali haitasita kuchukua hatua dhidi ya vyombo vya habari ambavyo kwa maksudi vitatoa taarifa za uchochezi ambazo zitahatarisha hali ya amani na utulivu uliopo nchini mwetu.”
5. “Wanaitumia kutunyang’anya uhuru wa kufikiri, uhuru wa kutoa maoni na kuwasiliana, wamefanya hivyo kwa Mwanahalisi. Wametishia kufanya hivyo kwa vyombo vingine vya habari. Hii ni hatari.”
6. “Uamuzi wa kulifungia MwanaHalisi haukubaliki na tunauona kama mwendelezo wa jitihada za Serikali kukandamiza uhuru wa habari na wanahabari nchini, lengo likiwa ni kuwaziba midomo wasiseme ukweli kuhusu uovu unaofanyika katika mfumo wetu wa utawala na jamii kwa ujumla.”

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