Tanzania media landscape is freer, but there’s still a long way to go
By Kajubi Mukajanga
Since the liberalisation of the media in Tanzania in the mid-1990s, the press is freer, more professional and independent, but there is still a long way to go.
The Media Council of Tanzania (MCT) is still dealing with government-imposed bans, ethical lapses and attempts at heavy-handed regulation.
On January 16, for example, President John Magufuli who had been in power barely two months, permanently banned the circulation of the Kiswahili publication Mawio, both in its hard copy and electronic format, as provided for in the Electronic and Postal Communication Act. Before this law was enforced, suspended publications were free to publish online.
In an interview, the Minister for Information, Culture, Arts and Sports, Nape Nnauye, accused the paper of publishing “incendiary” and “inflammatory” content that put the peace, stability and security of the country at risk.
The ban coincided with the Tanzania Communications Regulatory Authority’s issuance of notices for the deregistration of 20 radio stations and eight TV stations for failure to pay their statutory fees on time.
On ethical lapses, the “brown envelope syndrome,” in which journalists accept freebies from sources is compromising the objectivity, fairness and balance of news reporting.
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The Media Council has also noted the lack of impartiality in coverage of court cases, where headlines and content tend to convict people who are still standing trial.
Together with the Tanzanian judiciary, the media council has started a forum bringing together senior magistrates, judges and editors to discuss professional ethics. The MCT has also published guidelines for court reporters.
The coverage of gender, children and the disabled is another challenging area, and the MCT has conducted training and published manuals and guidelines for journalists on these subjects.
As a result, the Tanzanian media has improved in its ethics, as shown in a study commissioned by the Swiss Agency for Development and Co-operation.
But veteran editor Hamis Mzee, says there is still a long way to go.
“We are not yet there! Despite improvements, independence, truth and even accuracy are commonly contravened,” he said.
Dr Ayub Rioba, associate dean of the School of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Dar es Salaam, decries practices such as the reporting of unsubstantiated rumours, sensationalism, stereotyping and “mule journalism” where reporters or editors are paid by sources to write slanted stories.
He proposes training, enhancing self-regulation within newsrooms and appointing in-house mechanisms to censure rogue practitioners while rewarding the best.
But plans by the government to establish a statutory body to oversee the media’s professional and ethical conduct remain a challenge. Last year for example, government attempted to pass the Media Services Bill that stipulated hefty jail terms for ethical lapses (a minimum five-year prison sentence), provided for the state licensing of journalists, forced private broadcasters to air the 8pm evening news bulletin of the state broadcaster, allowed the confiscation of assets of offending media houses and granted wide-ranging enter-and-search powers to junior police officers.
It took the urgent action of all 11 members of the Coalition on the Right to Information, led by the MCT, to stop the Bill.
The struggle for a free, professional and independent media in Tanzania is therefore far from over.
Kajubi Mukajanga is the executive secretary of the Media Council of Tanzania/The EastAfrican