A step backwards on the road to democracy

"In order that a paper is not closed down. Obama: we envy Tanzania's economy. Mafia declines aid. Tanzania supports Japan."

“To avoid closure, papers should write like this. Obama: we envy Tanzania’s economy. Mafia declines aid, they have no problems. Tanzania supports Japan.” From Mwananchi, October 2010.

Tanzania trades on its reputation as an “island of peace,” (relatively) well governed, (relatively) democratic, and (relatively) peaceful. It is getting harder and harder to justify that reputation.

On Saturday, two of Tanzania’s leading newspapers – Mwananchi and Mtanzania – were suspended from publication by the government (unofficial English translation), Mwananchi for 14 days and Mtanzania for 90.

Freedom of the press is a fundamental pillar of democracy, a cornerstone of good governance and accountability. Any restrictions on that freedom – which can in some cases be justified – should be handled with extreme caution and used only in the most extreme circumstances. These are not those circumstances.

For those who are unfamiliar with the Tanzanian media, let me make one important point clear straight away: these are respected, respectable papers. Both are tame by comparison with others in Tanzania and wider East Africa. Both are popular.

Mwananchi’s website is the first Tanzanian news site I check every day, the most respected and balanced newspaper in the country. Along with its Tanzanian sister papers, The Citizen and Mwanaspoti, Mwananchi is part of Nation Media Group, owned by the Aga Khan, that also includes The East African, Daily Nation (in Kenya) and Daily Monitor (in Uganda). In Tanzania, the company is led by the highly regarded former BBC Swahili Editor, Tido Mhando.

Mtanzania does have firm political affiliations (in the manner of almost all Tanzanian media), but it is still a popular and largely respectable paper.

The government statement explained that the suspension had been issued:

“in response to these papers’ practice of writing news and features that are inflammatory and hostile with the intention of causing citizens to lose confidence in state organs, and as such putting the country’s peace and cohesion in danger.”

It singles out two articles in Mwananchi and three in Mtanzania for specific criticisms. I will come to those in a moment, after a little more background.

This is not the first time. Another paper, the much more outspoken MwanaHalisi, was suspended “indefinitely” back in June last year. The Newspaper Act of 1976 allows this, not even requiring the government to give an explanation. The paper remains closed to this day. Mwananchi itself was sent letters by the Registrar of Newspapers around the time of the 2010 general election, threatening to suspend the paper – they responded by publishing the letter they had been sent along with the cartoon shown above.

Attacks on journalists have been regular occurrences over the past few years. Saed Kubenea and Ndimara Tegambwage of MwanaHalisi were attacked with acid and machetes back in 2008. A Channel 10 TV reporter, Daud Mwangosi, was shot dead by the police in September 2011. In March this year, the editor of Mtanzania, Absalom Kibanda, was attacked and brutally beaten outside his home. Several other journalists have been subjected to harassment of one form or another.

Let’s look at the articles cited in the government statement

One of the reasons given for the suspension of Mtanzania is that they linked these and other recent high profile violent incidents to the government – arguing that some people suspect that the government was behind some of the attacks, and that it was being slow and half-hearted in its investigations.

“Serikali yanuka damu” ran its front page headline on August 18th – “The government stinks of blood”. A montage of the bruised and battered faces of four prominent attack victims accompanied the article, complete with splashes of red added clumsily by computer. The government statement described this article as “inflammatory,” adding that “it has the objective of causing citizens to hate security and defence organs, so that they see these organs as unhelpful to them.”

Inflammatory? It’s certainly a bold headline and an ill-considered use of Photoshop. I noted at the time that it was an aggressive move by the paper.

Nevertheless, Mtanzania can also make a good case that the story is founded in truth. There are plenty of people who suspect that the government might have been involved in some of these attacks – as well as some evidence to support this view – and there has been very little progress in finding the perpetrators and holding them to account. Of the many policemen photographed beating Mwangosi just before he was shot, only one has been arrested and charged, and his case shows no sign of conclusion. No-one has been caught for the beating of Kibanda, nor the similarly brutal beating of the doctors’ leader, Dr Ulimboka a year earlier. In contrast, when Mwanza Regional Police Commander Liberatus Barlow was killed, the case was solved within days. The paper quotes several respected public figures in making this point.

Let’s look at another of the Mtanzania articles that was highlighted in the government statement. “Urais wa damu” was, according to the statement, the headline on March 20th – “Presidency of blood”. At first glance, that’s pretty strong, it seems to directly accuse President Kikwete of having blood on his hands.

But in fact, the article is something quite different. The online version of the article even carries a headline that differs in a small but significant way. 2015: Urais wa damu,” it said – “2015: Presidency of blood” (my emphasis). In other words, by specifying the year, it’s clear that the article is not about the current president, but about the dirty politics that are already making many observers fearful about the prospects for the general election that’s due in two years’ time. The content of the article confirms this.

I cannot comment much on the content of the third Mtanzania article cited by the government, headlined “Mapinduzi hayaepukiki” (“Revolution cannot be avoided”), from June 12th, as it is not available online. In fact, I can’t find any reference to it either on the Mtanzania website, on Jamii Forums, on Twitter, or anywhere at all before Saturday’s statement, despite much searching. In other words, it wasn’t seen as a particularly important article by the Mtanzania editorial team, and didn’t attract much wider attention, despite the strongly worded headline. The word “revolution” is sensitive, but carries many possible meanings, particularly in a country where the full name of the ruling party (CCM) is “Party of the Revolution”. If the article had gone anywhere close to calling for a revolution, it would have stirred up some debate online.

Moving on to Mwananchi, two articles were cited in the government statement. The first, from July 17th, bore the headline “Mishahara mipya serikalini 2013” – “New government salaries 2013” – and proceeded to list in great detail the new government salary scales applicable from July 1st. The complaint is that the article was based on a confidential government document that should not have been published in the media. In the era of open government, which the Tanzanian government is claiming to be part of, this argument is hard to justify.

The second is more contentious: “Muslims pray under strict guard” (“Waislamu wasali chini ya ulinzi mkali”), published on August 17th, a Saturday. Tensions were high, as this was just a few days after the arrest of a controversial Muslim cleric, Sheikh Issa Ponda. The complaint here seems again to be as much about the image used alongside the article – a close-up of a fierce, angry-looking police dog. The statement argues that this could heighten tensions between the Islamic community and the police, and that the police would never take dogs to the area around a Mosque, given the “unclean” status of dogs in Islamic belief.

However, the key issue here is surely whether or not dogs were present. If not, then Mwananchi was undeniably irresponsible in suggesting that they were. If dogs were present, then Mwananchi surely had every right to say so.

The article’s writers seems pretty confident of their facts. The article refers specifically to the presence of police dogs on Msimbazi Street near Idrissa Mosque. The caption under the photo states that the pictured dog was indeed present at the policing of Friday prayers. I can find no evidence that the picture comes from somewhere else or dates from an earlier time. (Tanzanian papers have a record of misleading readers by publishing photos that have no direct connection with the story). Indeed, without getting too technical, a detailed examination of the meta-data attached to the photo shows that it was taken on August 16th by one of Mwananchi’s regular photographers. This is not a guarantee, but it strongly suggests that the photo is genuine.

In conclusion, these articles undeniably include some very strong headlines and contentious imagery. But in the four that are available, I could not find anything in their content that seems to be factually incorrect, and the fifth did not stir up any controversy at the time of its publication. In Mwananchi’s case, there doesn’t seem to be anything problematic at all.

Which leaves us with a question. Are strong headlines and badly-chosen images sufficient reason to suspend publication of a newspaper for three months? Does publishing a confidential (but not particularly sensitive) government document justify suspension for 14 days? Rather than taking them to court? Rather than lodging a complaint with the Media Council of Tanzania? For me, the answer in both cases is clear: no.

Putting it in context

But in truth, this analysis of the articles is beside the point. For one thing, under the current law the government does not have to justify its decision. And it doesn’t take much thought to realise that there’s something else more significant going on here as well.

The subject matter of the complaints is one clue – look at the date in that headline. The timing of the previous threat to close down Mwananchi is another – that was during the 2010 election campaign.

As with so much of what happens in Tanzania at the moment, this is all about 2015: election year.

Tanzanian politics is hotting up. President Kikwete is coming to the end of his second and final term, so the internal power struggles within CCM are intense, and the main opposition party, Chadema looks a more viable prospect than ever before. The general election seems set to be the most competitive in Tanzania’s history. Which is surely what this move is really about: a shot across the bows, showing the media that they cannot afford to overstep the mark. Even Mwananchi, balanced and respected, is fair game.

What happens now?

Mtanzania and Mwananchi are off the streets, in one sense at least. But both have said they will continue to publish in other ways – Mwananchi online and Mtanzania through their sister-paper, RAI, which will change from a weekly to daily paper for the next three months.

Other media has sprung to their defence, though with some notable exceptions. “Mshituko” was the headline of the lead story in today’s Nipashe – “Shock”. Tanzania Daima led with “Serikali yasutwa” – “government accused” – and The Citizen had “Mwananchi, Mtanzania ban draws tough reaction,” also on the front page. I recommend all three of those articles.

In contrast, look at the front pages of the two main government papers, HabariLeo and Daily News, and the CCM-owned Uhuru:

Meanwhile, opposition parties and politicians get angry, call for “undemocratic” laws to be repealed and the ban to be suspended. And there will be some condemnation from local and international media rights and pro-democracy groups.

There are two ways that this could develop. I worry that it could go very wrong. The government claims to be doing this to protect the peace, but it could have the opposite effect, raising the stakes and giving pro-democracy activists and opposition parties yet more grievances. “Mizizi ya amani ni ukweli, haki na uwajibikaji,” a wise man once said to me – “the roots of peace are truth, rights and accountability.”

But more than that, I worry that this move will achieve its goal: that the culture of silence, of self-censorship, in Tanzania’s press will grow stronger. “Fear of closure is enough to keep us quiet,” said Tido Mhando of Mwananchi last month. Yet “keeping quiet,” in his terms, was not enough to avoid closure. So what do he and the other owners, managers and editors of Tanzania’s press think now? And what will they think – and do – come 2015, when the election campaigns are in full swing?

At a time when lucrative gas and mining contracts are being drawn up, when Chinese investment is pouring into the country, when ordinary citizens’ access to land and water resources is under pressure, when so-called immigrants are being expelled and relations with Tanzania’s neighbours (on all sides) are strained, when religions tensions are high, and when Tanzania’s politics are more competitive than ever before, Tanzania desperately needs a media that’s not afraid to dig and to speak up. That’s what I worry about most.

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Further reading

For background:

On these closures:

6 thoughts on “A step backwards on the road to democracy

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  2. Mike Chambers

    Ben, I linked to your article through “On Tanzania Obama is getting it Wrong”. Well done, and the rest of your work. Pointing out that these shutdowns aren’t a kind of general repression but specific strategies (or warnings) for the 2015 election. There is though something in the modus operandae of the CCM that harkens back to the old days and an expectation of discipline from the “masses”. The unspoken reticence to break from consensus still informs the base of the pyramid. The leadership is somewhat desperately trying to keep it that way while the CCM mid-ranks and the opposition have an altogether different vision of how to contextualize the national debate. Mike

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