Dar es Salaam — The Tanzanian government's recent decision to suspend publication of two daily newspapers undermines the principle of good governance and tarnishes the image of Tanzania abroad, media professionals and legal experts say.
Effective September 27th, Mwananchi was shut down for 14 days and Mtanzania for 90 days for allegedly publishing seditious articles the government said threatened national security and violated peace and solidarity in the country.
The government used the Newspaper Act of 1976 to prohibit the newspapers from publishing.
Lawyer Nyaronyo Mwita Kichere said the act should have been repealed in 1992, when it was included in a list of 40 laws recommended to be invalidated by the Nyalali Commission, named for then-Chief Justice Francis Nyalali.
"This law vests unique power into the hands of one minister, who can make the decision to close a newspaper without availing the owners or editors responsible the opportunity to be heard," Kichere said. "It is a bad law by all parameters."
Tanzania is a signatory to the Open Government Partnership, which demands that governments be transparent to citizens in everything they do, he said.
The articles that prompted the closures were Mwananchi's story on government salaries that was based on confidential documents, and Mtanzania's piece titled "Muslims pray under tight security" that used a picture of a government police dog, which to some implied the government was sending dogs into mosques.
Executive Secretary of the Media Council of Tanzania Kajubi Mukajanga said the closure of the newspapers undermines democracy.
"The steps taken by the government are very unfortunate and undemocratic and have taken the country decades back in its endeavour to build a democratic society that respects freedom of expression and the media," Mukajanga told Sabahi.
Freedom of expression is the most fundamental right that empowers other rights to be realised, he said, adding that Tanzania should strive to safeguard it first and foremost.
On Wednesday (October 9th), stakeholders from Tanzania's independent media protested the recent closures and issued a statement announcing an indefinite boycott of news related to Minister of Information, Culture and Sports Fenella Mkangala and Director of Tanzania Information Services Assah Andrew Mwambene.
Not the first time
Mwananchi and Mtanzania are not the first newspapers the government has shuttered recently.
MwanaHalisi, an investigative weekly newspaper, was closed indefinitely in July 2012 for publishing what the government called "seditious and false material".
In its July editions, MwanaHalisi published a series of articles on the attack in late June against Stephen Ulimboka, chairman of the Tanzania Medical Association.
Ulimboka had been leading a demonstration in a standoff between the government and doctors over salary increases when he was abducted, beaten and tortured.
MwanaHalisi reported that a state intelligence officer had allegedly conspired with three others in the attack against Ulimboka. The newspaper also published telephone numbers of those it claimed were perpetrators of the attack, showing the time and places from where the calls were made to allegedly plan the abduction.
"If what we published about the attackers was wrong, my thinking tells me that the government had to come out with the right version that exonerates state organs," said Saed Kubenea, the proprietor and managing editor of MwanaHalisi.
"The government's silence is a confession that its instruments were involved in the attack in one way or another," he told Sabahi.
After MwanaHalisi ran the series, the government immediately denied the intelligence officer's involvement and said the story contained unfounded accusations intending to sensationalise and incite the public.
Kenyan national Joshua Murundi was arrested for the attack and convicted of the crime at Kisutu Magistrate Court in September 2013. The court sentenced him to spend six months in jail or pay a 1,000 shilling ($0.62) fine.
Murundi paid the fine and is now free.
The government previously used the Newspaper Act to suspend MwanaHalisi in October 2008 for three months for articles considered seditious and insulting to the president, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ).
Repealing the 1976 Newspaper Act
Absalom Kibanda, managing editor of Mtanzania, stood by his newspaper's story, but said that even if the newspapers had made a mistake, the punishment was too harsh.
"Closing a newspaper is unacceptable, but also closing it for 90 days is something I have never imagined," he told Sabahi. "The law that was used is bad and lawmakers have to look into the possibility of repealing it as soon as possible."
On October 6th, deputy opposition leader Zitto Kabwe issued a press statement saying he had submitted a bill to the clerk of the National Assembly seeking to repeal the Newspaper Act of 1976.
The Tanzania Editors Forum, a number of international media organisations and some politicians also issued statements blaming the government for the closures and asking lawmakers to repeal the law.
"The government could have taken their grievances against Mwananchi and Mtanzania to the Media Council of Tanzania, an ombudsman, rather than summarily suspending the publications," said CPJ East Africa Consultant Tom Rhodes. "We call on authorities to allow the papers to resume publication and to reform the laws that allow these suspensions, which are not in line with international standards of press freedom."
Neville Meena, editor of Mwananchi and secretary of the Tanzania Editors Forum, confirmed that newspaper editors were looking into the possibility of taking legal action against the government.
However, Director of Tanzania Information Services Assah Mwambene defended the government's position and said authorities did not act outside of the law but rather followed all procedures.
"We warned [the newspapers] a number of times," Mwambene told Sabahi. "For Mtanzania we even asked them to submit names of qualified editors because the one who is causing problems has never studied journalism, but they did not comply. Therefore, for security interests, we were forced to take these steps."
Mwambene said that if journalists abide by media ethics and tell the truth, there will never be an issue.