Tanzania’s government makes headway in country’s media reforms

Journalists in Tanzania covering an event. Image source; ILRI. Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Journalists in Tanzania covering an event. Image source; ILRI. Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

A month after lifting the ban on political rallies, the Tanzanian government announced yet another milestone with regard to media reforms.

In a press conference held on February 9, in the country’s capital Dodoma, Nape Nnauye, the Minister for Information, Communications and Information Technology, established that the government was committed to amending The Media Services Act, 2016, and that the amendment bill would be tabled in Parliament for the first reading on February 10.

The Media Services Act was enacted in 2016 during the then-president then John Magufuli’s administration in an attempt to censor journalists, the opposition, and human rights activists criticising the government and the president. The act saw the suspension of four newspapers and several online media platforms, drawing backlash from rights activists who filed a joint lawsuit before the East African Court of Justice (EACJ), a treaty-based judicial body of the East African Community (EAC) to which Tanzania is a signatory. In its landmark verdict, the East African Court of Justice delivered a ruling in favour of the applicants. The court determined that while Sections 13 and 14 of the act did not violate the EACJ Treaty, the remainder of the clauses did, and the United Republic of Tanzania was directed to ensure the Media Services Act was in compliance with the treaty.

Following the ruling, stakeholders in the media fraternity have relentlessly exerted pressure on the government to carry out major revisions to the draconian legislation containing numerous clauses that stifle media freedom in the country, a move that bore fruits as the government yielded, thus paving the way for the act to be up for review.

Nnauye’s announcement exhibits a change of tune by the government following complaints by the Tanzania Editors Forum (TEF), the local lobby for heads of news outlets in the country. In a previous media update, the government spokesperson, Gerson Msigwa, had hinted that the amendment bill would be deferred and tabled in the next parliamentary session in April 2023, due to the current parliament’s “tight calendar.”

Msigwa’s remarks prompted TEF to release a statement expressing concerns over the government spokesperson’s revelation, citing that the grounds on which the government sought to defer tabling of the bill in the ongoing parliament session was not sufficient. TEF felt that the move exuded a malicious attempt by the government to scuttle the Bill.

Minister Nnauye clarified that the government’s U-turn on tabling the Media Services Bill was a result of a last-minute cancellation of the Universal Health Coverage Bill that was scheduled to be tabled in Parliament, a factor that paved way for the bill to be slotted in the house’s schedule for its first reading.

Since the swearing-in of Samia Suluhu as president in 2021 following Magufuli’s demise, Tanzania has been making headway in legal reforms. In her first policy speech in April 2021, Suluhu ordered the Information Ministry to lift a ban on media outlets. Speaking during the swearing-in ceremony of newly-appointed government officials at State House, in Dar es Salaam, she said, “I have heard that licences of some media houses were revoked, including online TV platforms. Reopen them, we should not give them room to say we stifle press freedom. But once reopened, let them follow the government regulations.”

Suluhu's government has steadily signalled a desire to move away from the fifth administration's retrogression path by rolling back some laws stifling dissent, and or implementing progressive ones.

In 2022, the Tanzanian Parliament passed a Personal Data Protection Act, catapulting the country into the ranks of its East Africa Community (EAC) peers — Kenya, Uganda, and Rwanda, that have Data Protection Acts in place. The act guarantees the right to privacy and personal safety of individuals, as enshrined in the 1977 constitution.

In February 2023, President Suluhu revealed that a task team made up of political parties, civil society organisations, and Tanzanians from all walks of life would be established in due course to launch a new constitutional reform process and advance the stalled 2014 draft constitution. Chama Cha Mapinduzi’s Ideology and Publicity Secretary, Shaka Hamdu Shaka, details that the new constitutional reform push by the ruling party — Chama Cha Mapinduzi — is part of president Suluhu’s agenda of strengthening democracy and championing political reconciliation in the country.

Furthermore, she directed the relevant government ministries to review all legislation that has been demonstrated to be a barrier to the country's ability to expeditiously administer justice in the judiciary. Suluhu’s government is also set to embark on a path to reforming Tanzania’s electoral body, the National Electoral Commission (NEC), and amending laws that ban political parties.

Samia Suluhu confirmed in 2021 her intention to run for office in the quinquennial 2025 election, an announcement that outright rattled members of her party. During the 10th General Meeting of the Revolutionary Party (CCM) held in the capital Dodoma, in December 2022, retired president Jakaya Kikwete openly backed Suluhu’s bid. Kikwete stated that there was no way a CCM member could challenge the party chairperson and president Suluhu in the 2025 presidential race as she was more popular. If she wins, Samia will become the country’s first elected female president.

Political observers deduce that the overtures Samia has made thus far are simply a political game plan. While they have strengthened the opposition, they have nonetheless garnered her supporters for the upcoming elections.

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