Tanzania has denied its media laws are oppressive following the second suspension of a newspaper in one month.
Responding to questions on Whatsapp by The EastAfrican, government spokesman Gerson Msigwa, said, “Press freedom is not absolute and not above the law. Her excellency President Samia Suluhu’s promise to deliver press freedom is real, trusted and well exercised. We don’t have oppressive media laws.”
This response comes barely two weeks after the civil society went to court over the government's continued use of clauses in Tanzania's media law that were earlier invalidated to suspend two more newspapers over the past month.
The Media Council of Tanzania, Legal and Human Rights Centre and Tanzania Human Rights Defenders Coalition jointly filed the case at East African Court of Justice (EACJ) on August 27, arguing that the government had showed "contempt of court" in applying nullified provisions of the Media Services Act of 2016 to suspend a Kiswahili daily, Uhuru, on August 11 for 14 days. It is owned by the ruling CCM party.
According to an August 11 statement issued by the Directorate of Information Services (Maelezo), the newspaper violated sections 50 and 52 of the Act, which were both among provisions declared by the court to be in violation of the Treaty establishing the East African Community in a previous ruling delivered on March 28, 2019.
The new case mentions only the Uhuru suspension, because it was filed before Maelezo announced the 30-day suspension on September 5, of yet another leading Kiswahili newspaper, the weekly Raia Mwema.
Lawyer Fulgence Massawe, representing the three plaintiffs, told The EastAfrican that discussions were under way with representatives from Raia Mwema in order to incorporate their issue in the case before hearing begins on a date to be set later.
"The provisions cited by Maelezo to justify the Raia Mwema suspension are the same as those in the Uhuru case, and as such are just as invalid because they were rescinded long ago by EACJ," Mr Massawe said.
Section 50 of the Media Services Act criminalises the publishing of information or a statement which, among other things, is “maliciously or fraudulently fabricated” or is “knowingly to be false or without reasonable grounds for believing it to be true.”
Section 52 concerns seditious offences which are defined by the Act as intended to “bring into hatred or contempt or to excite disaffection against the lawful authority of the Government of the United Republic;” to “raise discontent or disaffection among people or section of people of the United Republic;” or to “promote feelings of ill-will and hostility between different categories of the population of the United Republic.”
On whether the government will repeal the seemingly oppressive Cyber Crimes Act 2015, Media Services Act 2016 and the Electronic and Postal Communication Act 2018, Mr Msigwa, said, “The licence of the Raia Mwema newspaper has been suspended for 30 days in accordance with section 9 (b) of the Media Services Act number 12 of 2016 after violating the licence conditions.”
Within weeks of taking office in March, President Samia asked the relevant ministry to immediately unban and allow operations of all media outlets banned by former president John Magufuli. In its 2019 ruling on the suspension of Mseto newspaper, the EACJ held that definitions of sedition “fail the test of certainty required in the first limb of the test” as they “are hinged on the possible and potential subjective reactions of audiences to whom the publication is made”.
The EACJ ruled that 23 provisions in Tanzania’s 2016 Media Services Act violated the EAC Treaty in infringing the right to freedom of expression. They directed the government to bring the Act into compliance with the Treaty. But two and a half years on, this has not been done. The civil society team said it was going back to the same court to seek “appropriate legal measures” against the “blatant violation of the court order with impunity by the government of the United Republic of Tanzania.
“Despite losing the (initial) case and without making any meaningful efforts to challenge the Court’s decision, the government has not complied with the court orders,” the team noted.
“I think the celebration was premature. Lifting the ban (on social media) was a good move but it was not comprehensive enough to guarantee media freedom,” said Henry Maina, a legal and media expert who is also a member of the Kenya Media Complaints Commission and former director at Article 19 Eastern Africa.
Press Freedom continues to receive lip service from EAC partner states Uganda, Burundi, South Sudan and Kenya. Journalists continue to face brutality from governments, politicians and the public. In Uganda, journalists were subjected to violence during the February elections. As Kenya prepares for elections in 2022, there have been reports of some politicians issuing threats to journalists. In Burundi, a section of independent media outlets remain banned to date.