Tanzania’s Illiberal Tilt
by Teldah Mawarire-Mareeg.com-JOHANNESBURG – During a recent phone call with a Tanzanian journalist and human rights activist whom I know well, many of my questions were met with uncharacteristic silence. My friend is bold, plucky, and usually talkative. But on this occasion, politics was too dangerous for her to discuss. With Tanzania’s journalists being threatened, assaulted, and kidnapped, our conversation remained confined to the mundane.
Tanzania, one of Africa’s most stable democracies is sliding toward authoritarianism. For months, President John Magufuli has been targeting his political opponents, attacking journalists, and closing news outlets. While his moves have drawn international criticism, Magufuli continues his assault on free speech and political rights. Tanzanians are being silenced like never before, and the world should be very worried.
Until recently, Tanzanians believed their country was headed in the opposite direction. After taking office in late 2015, Magufuli introduced a reform-oriented agenda that earned him high praise. Among his initiatives was a campaign to redirect public spending to fight cholera, and a payroll audit to identify “ghost workers” – non-existent government employees who drain some $2 million from the budget every month. The private sector was not spared with mining companies being accused of under paying their taxes. In fact, Magufuli’s anti-corruption efforts were so popular that many Tanzanians viewed their president as the epitome of morality; on social media, the hashtag #WhatWouldMagufuliDo went viral.
But today, that hashtag has become a parody. In banning protests, closing media organizations, and cracking down on his critics, Magufuli has shown Tanzanians, who have never had a strongman leader, that he intends to follow in the footsteps of the many the region has known.
Magufuli’s assault on press freedom has been particularly troubling. In June 2017, authorities ordered the popular Swahili language newspaper Mawio to cease publication for two years, after it ran a story about tax evasion by local mining companies. The article named former Tanzanian presidents Benjamin Mkapa and Jakaya Kikwete, which the government claimed was a violation of the Media Services Act of 2016.
Then, in January, five prominent television stations were fined for airing a statement by the Legal and Human Rights Center regarding possible rights violations during local elections last year.
Having muzzled traditional news organizations, the state then set its sights on online media. In March, the Tanzania Communications Regulatory Authority began requiring bloggers and digital publishers to register with the government and pay a $920 license fee. The Electronic and Postal Communications (Online Content) Regulations also require Internet cafes to install surveillance cameras, and bloggers to report on-site visitors and other operational details. Anyone who posts content that is deemed to “cause annoyance, threatens harm or evil, encourages or incites crimes,” or jeopardizes “national security or public health and safety” can have their costly license revoked.