Reporters Without Borders (RSF) condemns a series of disproportionate sanctions on Tanzanian media outlets and journalists in connection with their coronavirus coverage and urges the authorities not to reinforce the climate of harassment and fear in Tanzania, where press freedom has declined steadily since 2016.
The victims include the readers of the daily newspaper Tanzania Daima, who will see no articles by the reporter Talib Ussi Hamad for the next six months, the length of the suspension imposed by the authorities on Hamad on 20 April for allegedly referring to a coronavirus patient in a story without the patient’s consent.Last week, the authorities suspended the Mwananchi newspaper’s website licence for six month and fined it 5 million shillings (2,000 euros) for publishing a photo of President John Magufuli out shopping surrounded by several people in apparent violation of the social distancing rules announced by the government. The authorities said the photo was taken before the coronavirus crisis. Mwananchi quickly took it down and issued an apology.
Three pay TV operators – Star Media, Multichoice Tanzania and Azam Digital Broadcast – were fined the same amount and were ordered to broadcast an apology for seven days in a row simply for carrying a report by neighbouring Kenya’s Citizen TV that described President Magufuli as “stubborn” for refusing to impose a general lockdown.
“Instead of using other methods such as a issuing a warning or ordering the publication of a response, especially as these mistakes were quickly acknowledged and corrected, these extremely harsh sanctions are liable to contribute to the climate of fear that has taken hold in Tanzanian newsrooms since John Magufuli became president,” said Arnaud Froger, the head of RSF’s Africa desk. “If the coronavirus crisis worsens, Tanzania’s journalists could simply refuse to continue covering this story, which would deprive the population of the independent reporting that is essential in order to combat the pandemic effectively.”
The Tanzanian branch of the Media Institute of Southern Africa (MISA), which defends press freedom in the region, also issued a statement saying that a warning would have been “more appropriate and constructive” than the suspensions imposed in these cases.
Press freedom has declined steadily since Magufuli became president in 2015 and Tanzania has fallen a total of 53 places in the RSF's World Press Freedom Index, including another six places in the 2020 Index. No other country has fallen so far in the same period.
Laws have been passed restricting freedom of expression and information, newspapers have been closed and journalists have often been arrested or subjected to intimidation. The latest victim of systematic harassment is Erick Kabendera, a journalist held for seven months until finally released in February.
Tanzania is ranked 124th out of 180 countries in the 2020 World Press Freedom Index.