Lifting sanctions on Tanzania’s media: A limited turning point?

19 April 2021

New administration maintains oppressive media laws and restrictions despite steps to lift some sanctions.

On 6 April, Tanzania’s new President, Samia Suluhu Hassan, made a statement in the State House to order the lifting of media restrictions and suspensions imposed on media outlets under her late predecessor John Magufuli with immediate effect.

Reuters quoted Sululu’s directive for the Ministry of Information, Culture, Arts and Sports, as saying: “I have heard there are media that were banned. Reopen them, we should not give them room to say we are shrinking press freedom…We should not ban the media by force.”

But while the announcement is seen as a first step towards improving Tanzania’s media landscape, it has also caused confusion among media professionals. According to VOA, a government spokesperson later clarified that Hassan’s directive only applies to suspended online television outlets. A report by The Citizen reveals that the ‘quasi-independent’ communications regulator, the Tanzania Communications Regulatory Authority (TCRA), has started implementing Hassan’s directive by lifting the suspension on the issuance of online content service licenses, which was suspended on 28 January and was due to be lifted on 30 June.

Yet print and broadcast media were also targets of restrictions imposed under Magufuli. The new president also set a caveat that the government would“ensure” that re-opened media outlets “follow the rules.”

Media freedom advocates are now calling for a re-examination of Tanzania’s media and communications laws, such as the 2015 Cybercrimes Act, 2016 Media Services Act, 2012 Electronic and Postal Communications Act and the 2000 Online Contents Regulations, and to bring them in line with international press freedom standards.

Media repression under Magufuli

During his leadership, Magufuli placed draconian restrictions on press freedom. As a result, Tanzania’s position in global media freedom rankings continued to decline rapidly. It currently stands at 124/180 in RSF’s World Press Freedom Index, having stood at 69th in 2014.

The Public Media Alliance has regularly reported on how these restrictions on press freedom have curtailed media independence and pluralism. Even during the COVID-19 pandemic and in the lead up to the general election last year, Magufuli revoked the licence of an opposition-leaning outlet, accusing it of spreading false information, and imposed suspensions and sanctions on several other media organisations.

Read more: Tanzania: Regulator poses tighter restrictions on media  

Limited gains

Ravi R. Prasad, Director of Advocacy at the International Press Institute (IPI), explained why the organisation remains sceptical: “…the lifting of suspensions, while an important start, is not sufficient for a sustainable improvement in the media landscape.”

He also urges lawmakers to “bring Tanzania’s media laws in line with international standards to prevent the threat of censorship in the future” and that “attacks against journalists in recent years must be the subject of serious and thorough investigations to prevent impunity.”

The Media Institute for Southern Africa (MISA) also welcomed President Hassan’s change in attitudes towards media freedom and freedom of expression but encouraged her to “follow through on this pledge and improve Tanzania’s media freedom environment which was on an alarming and steep decline.”

“MISA Zimbabwe hopes that this marks the beginning of a free and vibrant Tanzanian media that can effectively play its watchdog role as the ‘fourth estate’.”

In a separate report, the arrest of two journalists last week led MISA to express its concern that “journalists are still being arrested in Tanzania for simply doing their work.” MISA stated: “The latest arrest flies in the face of President Hassan’s commitment to ensure that Tanzania is not a country that is renowned for arresting journalists.”

Ahead of World Press Freedom Day on 3 May, the Public Media Alliance welcomes these initial steps to re-open Tanzania’s media sector. But for citizens to see real and sustainable improvements to the media landscape, authorities must recognise the importance of free, independent and pluralistic media for both the health of democracy and citizens during the COVID-19 pandemic. Steps must be taken to ensure that all journalists and media houses operate under fair regulations that cannot be arbitrarily abused by powerful individuals to silence critical reporting.