Rampant self-censorship, the shutdown of media outlets and repressive media laws continue to intensify in Tanzania.

Media freedom has deteriorated greatly under President Magufuli, who has been in power since 2015. A report by Human Rights Watch claims that “while some restrictive trends may have predated his term, they have intensified since he became president.”

Tanzania now ranks 118th in RSF’s 2019 World Press Freedom Index, having dropped 25 places since last year. Arnaud Froger, head of RSF’s Africa desk notes that, “No other country in the world has experienced such a drastic decline in press freedom in the past four years.” 

Media outlets shutdown

In the last three years, over a dozen media outlets have been shut down. In October 2015, the state-run Zanzibar Broadcasting Commission also shut down Swahiba FM, a radio station that reported on the re-run of the 2015 elections. 

More recently, sanctions on three online TV channels were imposed by the Tanzania Communication Regulatory Authority, which led to two channels being fined for approximately 2,000 and the suspension of Kwanza TV for half a year. All three channels have allegedly been critical of President Magufuli. The BBC’s media profile of Tanzania also highlights that media ownership in the country is highly concentrated.

Amnesty International and HRW recently published reports on the current media landscape within Tanzania, both referring to the repressive laws and legislations put in place that restrict media freedom and threaten journalist safety in the country. This includes the Electronic and Postal Communications Act, adopted in 2018, which Amnesty International explains “broadly restricts online content” and “requires anyone with a blog or a website to pay hefty license fees of up to 2.1 million Tanzania Shillings.” New laws have also forced media companies to reapply for operating licences on a more regular basis, further restricting critical voices in local media. 

In November, the government escalated its attacks on media freedom and the ability of journalists to hold it to account by warning that it would take legal action against journalists and news outlets who use foreign sources in their reports, alleging that they spread “fake news” within and about the country. Dr Hassan Abbas, a chief government spokesperson, took to Twitter to announce that “The government has made enough explanation, given enough warnings and enough pardons. Now we will take stern legal measures.”

Journalist safety

Erick Kabendera, a Tanzanian freelance journalist who has been detained since July, was due to face trial on the 5 December, having already being postponed several times  prior. Yet, a request to expedite his case was rejected and the hearing once again postponed until 18 December due to the magistrate reaching no overall agreement. He was initially arrested for having “fraudulent” citizenship before being prosecuted for tax evasion and money laundering, which prevents him from qualifying for bail

The journalist is well known for his critical reporting on President Magufuli, leading human rights and press freedom advocates to consider this as being a clear example of silencing critical voices in the country. Organisations such as RSF and CPJ have condemned the treatment of Kabendera while he has been in detention, pledging concerns for his deteriorating health

Kabendera is one of two journalists from Tanzania who appeared in One Free Press Coalition’s ‘10 Most Urgent’ list in September, beside Azory Gwanda, a freelance journalist who has now been missing for two years. In an interview with the BBC’s “Focus on Africa”, Tanzania’s foreign minister, Palamagamba Kabudi, claimed that Gwanda was dead; although the Committee to Protect Journalists has since found that the government had dismissed his case.

While the government continues to reject criticism of its disastrous approach to media freedom and denies claims of a crackdown on critical voices, there are serious concerns  that its policies will fuel censorship and limit freedom of expression ahead of the 2020 general election. 

The Public Media Alliance condemns any threats to the independence of the media and the role of journalists in holding power to account. We will continue to report on developments ahead of the elections.