Press freedoms in Tanzania have been consistently dwindling since the reign of President Magufuli began in 2015. The country has fallen a total of 53 places in the Reporters Without Borders (RSF) World Press Freedom Index. No other country has fallen so far in the same period.
The COVID-19 outbreak in Tanzania is, however, making an already difficult situation worse. Media houses and individual reporters criticizing President Magufuli’s approach to tackling the pandemic have found themselves facing punitive sanctions even as government officials continue to be ordered to take more punitive action against free speech, both on the mainstream media and social media.
The victims include Talib Ussi Hamad who had his license suspended for six months from April 20th, for allegedly referring to a coronavirus patient in a story without the patient’s consent. Hamad wrote for Tanzania Daima a daily newspaper in the country.
Readers of the online publication Mwananchi no longer have access to their source of news, as the website was also suspended for six months in April. The website had published a photo of President Magufuli going shopping surrounded by several people in outright violation of social distancing recommendations. The publication was also fined USD 2,187 dollars.
A Kenyan TV station, Citizen TV, which also broadcasts in Tanzania via three pay-TV channels were forced to run a seven-day apology for airing a feature dubbed, Ukaidi wa Magufuli (Magufuli’s defiance), in criticism to Magufuli’s defiant approach to the fight against COVID -19.
RSF is now warning that if the intimidation continues, journalists working in Tanzania will refuse to cover the pandemic.
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.
– Reporters Without Borders
While speaking during the swearing-in of a new minister over the weekend, President Magufuli claimed that the national laboratory conducting tests on COVID-19 was giving out fake results that portray the country as having very high infection numbers. He said that samples secretly sent to the laboratory, which was taken from a pawpaw fruit, goats, and sheep among other organisms tested positive bringing into question the accuracy of the tests. Tanzania currently has 480 cases, the highest in the region, despite the fact that their data was last updated more than five days ago.
Interestingly, the press in Tanzania has continued to carry Magufuli’s claims as were issued with not a single outlet showing the intent of trying to authenticate the president’s claims or even questioning the country’s policy of not being consistent in releasing results even as their neighbors like Kenya and Uganda release the same daily.
The curator of a popular online forum in Tanzania whose details we will not publish for his own safety spoke to us confirming that the climate of fear is already in existence in the country and the press has been turned into a conveyor belt for the government’s narrative.
It is in public knowledge that even government ministers have died of COVID-19 but this is not reported by our media. There are no attempts to cary out independent investigative stories because media houses are afarid of the Information Services Act of 2016, and the Internet Offences Act of 2015 being used against them.
– Media source in Tanzania
He spoke of secret night burials in parts of the country even as the government downplays the extent of infections in Tanzania.
While these stories have not been carried by local media inside Tanzania, international media outlets at times report on them. A story appearing on BBC shows footage of burials happening in the middle of the night under tight security. The burials are conducted by people donning personal protective equipment.
The footage shows the funerals taking place under tight security with people wearing personal protective equipment and very few mourners in attendance.
Opposition politicians and activists believe it may be part of cover-up by the authorities who have not been releasing regular updates on coronavirus.
Unlike other countries, Tanzania has not opted for strict lockdown measures although mass gatherings at funerals, like weddings, have been banned.
– BBC reportage by Basillioh Mutahi & Athuman Mtulya
While it’s still not clear what these measures by Tanzania to muzzle reportage on COVID-19 will have on public safety, it is pretty obvious that they are already denying the citizens access to credible information that they should be able to use to make their own decisions.