Media bill would kill free press

The proposed legislation would keep a watchful eye on journalists and impose hefty fines and prison sentences on journalists who step out of line. Photo: Daniel Hayduk

The proposed legislation would end press freedom in Tanzania.  Hefty fines and prison sentences await journalists are deemed to have crossed the line. Photo: Daniel Hayduk

If you thought the Statistics and Cyber Crime bills were bad, think again. The government is still looking to pass the Media Services Bill, which critics say is even worse and would effectively bring an end to press freedom in Tanzania.

“The sum … is total and unmitigated control of the media in the country,” says Media Council of Tanzania executive secretary Kajubi Mukajanga.

Earlier this year, President Jakaya Kikwete’s administration tried to pass the bill with a certificate of urgency, but backlash from media stakeholders has forced it to follow normal parliamentary procedures.

“What is most alarming is the fact that the law sets minimum sentences which are themselves already too harsh, and does not set out the maximum — leaving that to the discretion of the magistrate or judge,” says Mukajanga.

Among the offenses are publishing fabricated or false information, operating a media outlet without registration, practicing journalism without accreditation, publishing seditious material and publishing prohibited information.

The bill would also require all journalists in Tanzania to be accredited by a minister-appointed board, which also has the power to remove journalists and impose fines.

“Such criminalization… can only serve to mold a society that is shrouded in fear, a society that is afraid to talk to itself and about itself.”

“Such criminalization of professional and ethical lapses in media, even where they really are true faults, can only serve to mold a society that is shrouded in fear, a society that is afraid to talk to itself and about itself, and this would be the beginning of losing even the few, but important, gains that Tanzanians have made in their democratic struggles,” says Mukajanga.

One good point in the bill is the requirement for employers to pay for insurance cover for their media house employees, he says.

Contents aside, the bill is poorly written and seems to have been put together in a rush, says Mukajanga.

“There is no clarity between the Board and the Council as even the terms are used interchangeably while these are supposed to be two separate entities; and the governance structures are jumbled up, sometimes with an organ from one body being tasked to oversee funds of another.”

The recent bills have been seen as a setback to Kikwete’s push for an ‘Open Government Initiative’ and have been roundly criticized by human rights and organizations.

“I can honestly say that Tanzania is one country where press freedom is assured,” Kikwete said in his speech at the Open Government Partnership annual meeting in 2012.

“Some say the press is too free to a fault … There is no government censorship of the media.”

Read more: ‘Draconian’ bill stuns rights groups

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