Dar es Salaam — A debate has ensued over who between the Minister for Information, Culture, Arts and Sports and the Information Services Department has the powers to ban a newspaper.
The debate has come after the minister for Information Dr Harrison Mwakyembe banned Mawio, a Swahili weekly tabloid on Thursday, using powers vested in his office by Section 59 of the Media Services Act, 2016 (MSA). The publication has been suspended for 24 months. Section 59 of the MSA reads in part: "The Minister shall have powers to prohibit or otherwise sanction the publication of any contention that jeopardises national security or public safety."
While government officials have defended the minister saying this provision gives the minister powers to suspend a newspaper, some stakeholders have said the powers to suspend or ban a newspaper have been vested in the director of the Information Services Department (Maelezo) through Section 9(b) of the same law. This section reads in part: "The director of Information Services Department or such other person acting on his behalf shall have powers to... (b) suspend or cancel the license in the event of failure of a licensee to comply with the prescribed conditions of a license."
The Director of Maelezo, Dr Hassan Abbas, told The Citizen when reached for comment yesterday that the law was not violated because the licences, referred to in Section 9, are the requirements of the MSA, which is a new law, and have not yet started being issued.
In that sense there is no licence to be annulled because prior to the new law no newspaper licences were being issued, Dr Abbass told The Citizen in a telephone interview.
"The Minister was within his legal powers to suspend Mawio... Section 59 gives him those powers. And in this case the term 'content' is defined by the law as general publication," Dr Abbass elaborated.
The MSA defines content as "including information in print media or electronic media images, drawings, cartoons, and any other characters, whether moving or still."
"People shouldn't be confused. I'm aware that a local Television Station, in one of its morning programmes today, was saying that the Minister has no powers to suspend a newspaper. They have misled the public and, in fact they are supposed to issue a clarification," Dr Abbas said.
Dr Abbas admitted that the MSA gives him powers to issue or reject an application for print media licences and to cancel or suspend a licence if the holder fails to comply with the terms and conditions of the issuance. "But, the issuance of media licences hasn't started until in the financial year 2017/18," he said.
But lawyers and media stakeholders who spoke to The Citizen said the issue is debatable.
Singida East MP, Tundu Lissu said the minister has, categorically, breached the MSA and that the decision was against public interest and the law itself.
"I'm against the procedures and justification made for the suspension of Mawio. It's obvious that the minister has no powers to suspend a newspaper. He only has powers to prohibit unlawful content," Mr Lissu, who is also an advocate of the High Court and the President of the Tanganyika Law Society, said.
He added that it was unfortunate that the punishment was made without consulting the aggrieved parties.
The acting executive secretary of the Media Council of Tanzania (MCT), Ms Pili Mtambalike, told The Citizen that the law says before a newspaper is suspended from production, the editors have to be summoned to an Independent Media Council which, according to Section 26 (b) and (c) has to conduct reviews on performance of the media sector and determine print media complaints.
"I would advise the authorities to observe the law despite some of its weaknesses," she said.
Mawio editor-in-chief Simon Mkina has said they would challenge the decision in court.
The MSA, however, says the minister powers to hear an appeal of aggrieved parties when and if their application for a print media licence has been rejected, or whether their licences have been suspended or cancelled.
Section 10 (1) of the MSA reads in part: "Any person aggrieved by the decision of the Director of Information Services Department under Section 9 may, within thirty days from the date of such decision, appeal to the Minister."
The law goes on to say that if the aggrieved party is not satisfied with the decision of the Minister they can, then, proceed to the High Court.
The powers given to a government official to reject application and cancel or suspend a print media licence was a subject of hot debates both inside and outside the government when the Media Services Bill was being passed last year. Stakeholders wanted those powers be vested in the courts of law. But the government insisted that the courts of law would be the avenues of last resort.