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Tanzanian President John Magufuli's aside on "limits" of press freedom raises fears

Tanzania's President John Magufuli leaves after inspecting a guard of honour during his official visit to Nairobi, Kenya, 31 October 2016
Tanzania's President John Magufuli leaves after inspecting a guard of honour during his official visit to Nairobi, Kenya, 31 October 2016

REUTERS/Thomas Mukoya

This statement was originally published on on 19 April 2017.

Tanzanian President John Magufuli's ominous warning to journalists last month that press freedom had “limits” following a sequence of events that led to the firing of his information minister has raised new concerns about authoritarianism in the east African republic.

Over the course of Magufuli's nearly 18 months in office, newspapers have been shuttered, opposition rallies have been barred, live broadcasts of parliamentary sessions have been halted and a cyber-crime law was enacted that has been used to jail critics.

The president has rejected accusations that he has suppressed democracy, claiming instead to have encouraged both it and the rule of law. However, his unwavering support of the controversial regional commissioner of Dar es Salaam, Paul Makonda, has again called that claim into question.

Makonda has faced criticism for alleged abuses, particularly in connection with his announced crackdown on homosexuals and his efforts to bring criminal charges against individuals accused of spreading “false information” online. But that criticism reached a crescendo last month when he led a raid by armed police on the offices of a Dar es Salaam media group, Clouds FM, where Makonda demanded that the broadcaster air material damaging to a political rival.

Then-Information Minister Nape Nnauye called for an investigation, pledging to provide a report to Magufuli, but he was sacked within a day. One day later, Magufuli issued a stern warning to a group of journalists at a ceremony to swear in new ministers, condemning them for sensationalising news and for failing to report positive stories about the country.“Media owners, let me tell you, be careful, watch it,” he said. “If you think you have that kind of freedom – not to that extent.”

Officials at odds

The Clouds FM incident was not the first time that Nnauye and Makonda found themselves at odds.

On Feb. 9, Makonda released a list of individuals that he said were suspected of involvement in a drug ring. The list named some of those in the uppermost echelons of Tanzanian society: people in government, business, law enforcement, religion and the music industry. However, Makonda declined to reveal any evidence or disclose any details of an investigation.

Nnauye responded publicly, saying that those named on the list were “victims” who deserved “compassion”, given Makonda's actions.

But Deus Kimbaba, executive director of the Tanzania Citizens' Information Bureau, told the International Press Institute (IPI) that Nnauye's response was more a demonstration of the former information minister's affinity for the people on the list than a principled stand against abuse.

Pili Mtambalike, a program manager with the Media Council of Tanzania, agreed, commenting that Nnauye “is said to have been upset by Makonda's drug list as it named a few of his 'friends' ”. Because of Nnauye's public stance, Mtambalike continued, the former information minister had “ended up looking as some defender of press freedom in the country, which he is not”.

Nnauye's record on press freedom is indeed spotty. In April 2016, he halted live broadcasts of debates in Parliament because they “cost too much”, reportedly rejecting an offer by opposition parties to pay for the broadcasts. In August, he also ordered two private radio stations in Dar es Salaam to cease broadcasting after they aired “seditious” material during a morning show.

Mtambalike noted that Nnauye also “was the architect of the notorious Media Services Act, 2016 which [had] the biggest propensity to diminish press freedom in the country”. Among other measures, the Act created a state regulator to oversee all publishers, from major news outlets to blogs, with the power to ban newspaper and bar non-accredited journalists from publishing. It also introduced tough criminal penalties for defamation, sedition and false statements.

Close relationship

Kimbaba said that Nnauye's firing was the result of Magufuli's desire “to tirelessly and relentlessly protect [Makonda]”. The president and the regional commissioner have enjoyed a close relationship since Magufuli's election campaign, in which he pledged to fight corruption and improve citizens' welfare.

“During the highly difficult presidential campaign, Makonda openly backed and supported Magufuli for presidency and that was a good bet,” Kimbaba recounted. “Following his narrow win, Magufuli showed great love on Makonda and declared that he would promote him regional commissioner, which he eventually did.”

Observers argue that Magufuli's support of Makonda is twofold: to repay the support of a close ally and to meet his campaign pledge by cracking down on drug trafficking. If Magufuli failed to back up Makonda's drug hunt, some have claimed, it could leave the regional commissioner open to retribution from the alleged network he purported to expose.

But Kimbaba said Nnauye was sacked not only to support government efforts to fight drug trafficking, but to cow opposition to Magufuli within Tanzania's government.

"The immediate effect is that [Nnauye's] sacking has scared a lot of his colleagues in the cabinet and will silence a larger part of it,” Kimbaba commented.

Nicknamed the “bulldozer”, Magufuli has cracked down on overspending and enacted budgetary austerity measures, leading to an increase in Tanzania's economic performance and in Magufuli's popularity. Early in his term, social media users in Tanzania who were inspired by his thriftiness adopted the hashtag #WhatWouldMagufuliDo.

But that sentiment has changed. Following Nnauye's sacking, popular Tanzanian rapper Nay wa Mitego released a song questioning the existence of freedom of expression in the country. Mitego was arrested for “maligning the government” after the song and an associated music video attracted international attention, but he was later released amid public outcry.

Magufuli's lecture of journalists late last month prompted the creation of another hashtag popular on social media, #ReportersUnderMagufuliEra. The tongue-in-cheek hashtag accompanies positive news about Tanzania, no matter how untrue or hyperbolic that news may be.

However, the use of humour, while comforting, does little to address growing concerns that press freedom is deteriorating in Tanzania.

“The state of press freedom in Tanzania is going from bad to worse and not specifically by Makonda's actions alone,” Mtambalike said, pointing to an increasing number of threats against journalists in the country that he said have been met with impunity.

Kimbaba agreed, adding: “The environment in which the press operates is far more intimidating now than ever before.”

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