“Do not obey in advance. Much of the power of authoritarianism is freely given. In times like these, individuals think ahead about what a more repressive government will want, and then start to do it without being asked. You’ve already done this, haven’t you? Stop. Anticipatory obedience teaches authorities what is possible and accelerates unfreedom.”
Timothy Snyder, Professor of History at Yale University and author of “On Tyranny, twenty lessons from the twentieth century“
Nipashe Jumapili, a Sunday newspaper owned by media tycoon Reginald Mengi, has been suspended from publication for three months. This makes the paper the fifth to be suspended since President Magufuli came into office in November 2015, after Mawio, RaiaMwema, MwanaHalisi and Tanzania Daima. What makes this case different, however, is that the paper was not suspended by the government’s Information Services Department, but by its own management.
The paper announced the decision on Sunday afternoon, explaining that an article published in the paper that very morning had fallen short of their own standards, that it had put at risk the good relations that exist between Tanzania and Rwanda. They also offered personal apologies to Presidents John Magufuli of Tanzania and Paul Kagame of Rwanda for having published the article.
The government issued a statement welcoming the paper’s decision. It came with a clear message to the Tanzanian press: “We must remind ourselves, journalism is more than a business, it is a profession, and so you have a major responsibility to respect journalistic ethics and accountability.”
The paper’s offending article discusses President Magufuli’s reaction to calls for him to stay in office beyond two five-year terms. The President recently dismissed such suggestions as unconstitutional, which was widely covered in the Tanzanian media.
“JPM akerwa wanaomtaka adumu urais kama Kagame,” ran the headline: Magufuli disappointed by those who want him to stay in office like Kagame. The article ends with a description of changes made to term limit laws in Rwanda and Burundi in recent years. With Kagame visiting Tanzania right now, there is some sensitivity in the timing: drawing attention to the difference between Tanzania and Rwanda’s positions might embarrass one or both presidents.
Since it has come up, lets indulge in a brief digression on term limits – a topic which for many years has been beyond discussion in Tanzania. Each time an incumbent president reached the end of their second term, the international press would express first doubt, then surprise, then praise when the outgoing president made no attempt to change the rules or block the handover to their successor. Tanzanians would only shrug: it simply wasn’t an issue. Unlike in Rwanda.
There are signs that this is no longer the case. CCM politicians and other have made several calls for changes in recent months, which the President has dismissed. In most cases, the suggestion is that the length of the presidential term could be increased from 5-7 years. But some are also asking whether the President might be looking for a way to stay in office beyond two terms. Answers are often uncertain.
Lets get back, though, to the main issue at hand – Nipashe Jumapili’s self-imposed suspension. Self-censorship has always been part of the media. All over the world, editors and their advisors make daily decisions about what they should or should not print. Sometimes, whether for legal or political reasons or something else entirely, they decide it’s not worth the risk.
But too much self-censorship becomes a cause for concern. When editors are fearful, important stories never see the light of day, and democracy recedes a little further into the darkness.
And has there ever been such a extensive and transparent act of self-censorship as suspending your own newspaper for three months?
The Monday issue of Nipashe – the suspended paper’s weekday sister paper – has two prominent stories on its front page. The first – “Kumradhi Rais Magufuli, Paul Kagame wa Rwanda” – addresses the matter directly: Asking forgiveness from President Magufuli, Paul Kagame of Rwanda. The second is hardly any more subtle: “Neema tano ziara Kagame Tanzania” – Five good things from Kagame’s visit to Tanzania.
It brings to mind a medieval court, where a courtier finds they have inadvertently insulted the King. Rather than wait for the King to have their head removed, the courtier rushes to prove their remorse by subjecting themself to brutal punishment, hoping to earn the King’s mercy.
The suspension may have been decided by the media house’s own management in an extreme case of anticipatory obedience. Or it may have been “negotiated” by a grovelling editor or proprietor, hoping to escape a longer or more comprehensive punishment. Sunday papers make little money and have little influence in Tanzania: the weekday version is what matters.
Might it be possible that this shouldn’t be considered a case of self-censorship at all?