Tanzania bans another newspaper

The Citizen, 27/01/15

The Citizen, 27/01/15

Once again, the Tanzanian government has banned a newspaper. In late 2013, Mtanzania was suspended for 90 days and Mwananchi for 14. In June 2012 it was MwanaHalisi, which remains suspended to this day. This time it is The East African, a highly respected regional paper.

The East African’s readership in Tanzania is low in numbers, but significant for who they are: the country’s business and political elites. It is seen as a thorough and dependable source of news on financial matters and regional politics in particular. It’s also part of the same media group (NMG/MCL) as two major and respected Tanzanian newspapers: The Citizen and Mwananchi.

We’re unlikely to see the outcry that followed suspension of Mwananchi in 2013. Most Tanzanians – even newspaper readers – won’t notice, with cabinet resignations and reshuffles dominating the news agenda. But it stands, once again, in stark contrast to the government’s stated commitment to open government and freedom of information. 

The articles in The East African itself, and it’s Kenyan sister paper, Daily Nation, give three reasons for the ban:

  1. “According to a letter sent to The EastAfrican bureau chief in Tanzania, the decision was apparently taken because the paper “has been circulating in the country without having registration, contrary to section 6 of the Newspaper Act number 3 of 1976”.”
  2. “Mr Mwambene [the Director of Information Services] accused it of having a negative agenda against Tanzania. He singled out a recent opinion that criticised the Dar es Salaam administration’s stance on Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR) rebels in the Democratic Republic of Congo as a case in point.”
  3. “Mr Mwambene also took exception to the cartoon in the current issue of The EastAfrican, that he said demonstrated bad taste and disrespect to the person and office of the president.”

Let’s take each of these points in turn.

The newspaper itself seems to acknowledge that it was not registered, but there are two questions to be asked here.

First, is it even a legal requirement for foreign newspapers to register in Tanzania? The Media Council of Tanzania has raised this issue: “I’m not sure if all international newspapers and magazines that are being circulated in the country are registered in Tanzania, the ministry must tell us about this,” said the MCT Executive Secretary, Kajubi Mukajanga. Is the Economist registered? Is Time Magazine? Are the many Kenyan and Ugandan papers that are available in Arusha and Mwanza?

Second, and more pertinent: if an unregistered paper has been circulating freely for twenty years, why clamp down on it now?

This takes us straight on to the next issue – the opinion content, including on the FDLR.

I can’t find, online, any particularly contentious opinion piece about the Tanzanian government’s stance on the FDLR in eastern DRC. (This, this, or this? All seem innocuous.) It’s been a sensitive issue lately, linked to ongoing tensions between Tanzania and Rwanda. But the East African’s coverage of the Great Lakes region is hugely respected, as are its opinion pages. It may be unpopular with the government, but to ban a newspaper for this is totally out of proportion.

Which leaves us with that cartoon. The East African’s editorial cartoonist is a Tanzanian, Godfrey Mwampembwa, aka Gado. He is often daring in his drawings – see this from last year, for example.

But I was surprised by this particular one at the time, and commented that it had “a #JeSuisCharlie spirit of defiance” about it. Here it is:

Gado cartoon, East African, 17/1/15

Gado cartoon, East African, 17/1/15

Bold? Certainly. Offensive and disrespectful? Possibly.

Indeed, the NMG Group Chairman, Wilfred Kiboro, was reported as saying they had apologised for having “erred in judgement” in publishing the cartoon.

But sufficient cause for a ban? Surely not. Especially after an apology.

Perhaps it touched a nerve somewhere? It’s not impossible.

But finally, there is one other thing worth remembering here. There’s a constitutional referendum and a general election coming up this year, and the media will play a big role in both. What better way to remind more influential newspaper editors and journalists to stay in line than to slap a ban on one of the most respected papers?

Which is why my conclusion is this: as with so much that’s happening in Tanzania this year, this is about the election.