Freedom of expression is under attack once again in Tanzania.
Last Wednesday, government authorities notified editors of Tanzania’s major English language newspaper, The Citizen, that the paper would be suspended for seven days. The newspaper had published two articles, one about US lawmaker, Bob Menendez, raising concerns about “the gradual spiral of respect for civil liberties in Tanzania” and another reporting that the Tanzania shilling was falling against the US dollar. Authorities say the articles were one sided.
This is not the first time the government has banned newspapers in recent times. In 2017, authorities banned four newspapers for “disseminating false information” or “threatening national security.” Mawio was banned after publishing an article that linked former presidents to controversial mining contracts; Tanzania Daima was banned for “continuous publication of false information” after reporting that 67% of Tanzanians use anti-retroviral drugs; Mwanahalisi was banned for two years after it published an article comparing president Magufuli with opposition politician and prominent government critic, Tundu Lissu, after an attempted assassination on Lissu by unknown assailants;. Raia Mwema was banned following the publication of an article titled “Magufuli presidency likely to fail.”
The Media Services Act, passed in 2016, gives the government the power to restrict and limit the independence of the media. It requires journalists to be accredited by the government, creates broad and unclear offenses such as the publication of statements which “threatens the interests of public order” or “public morality” that are open to abuse by the government. The law also gives too much oversight to the director of information services, such as the power to arbitrarily suspend or cancel the licenses of newspapers. This is all part of a wider pattern of repression targeting freedom of expression over the past few years, including creating an excessively high fee to blog, criminalizing posting certain content online, fining TV stations, and prohibiting the publication of independent statistics without government permission.
Tanzania’s constitution guarantees the right of citizens to be informed of issues of importance to society. But when the government suspends newspapers, it creates an environment of fear and prevents people from having legitimate discussions about serious issues facing the country. Tanzania should stop stifling freedom of expression and stop banning newspapers.