DAR ES SALAAM (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – Conditions for journalists are worsening in Tanzania, with reporters increasingly being harassed, attacked and censoring their work out of fear of reprisal, a study has found.
Afraid of offend the authorities and worried about their safety, journalists are failing to report the whole story on topics like corruption and political and civil unrest, said the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), a New York-based non-profit organisation that defends press freedom around the world.
The Tanzanian media has not been able to operate independently for the past eight years due to insecurity and fear of reprisals, the CPJ said in a report entitled The Invisible Plight of the Tanzania Press.
“The rise in attacks against the press, set against a backdrop of repressive media laws, is sowing self-censorship among Tanzanian journalists, especially those working in rural areas. Public protests against the government in rural places have gone uncovered as a result of this fear,” said the report.
As an example, the CPJ cited press coverage of recent protests against the construction of a gas pipeline in the Mtwara region. It said the demonstrations and perceptions that police used excessive force to disperse the crowds went under-reported.
“The police barred journalists from covering open court trials of protesters accused of instigating violence,” said Mohammed Tibanyendera, chairman of the Tanzania chapter of the Media Institute of Southern Africa, in the report.
The report called for Tanzania to bring in new legislation on the media that meets international standards for press freedom and to scrap repressive laws. Authorities have traditionally relied on a web of anti-press laws to keep journalists in check, the report said.
Some local journalists suggested the mere existence of such laws made their work difficult.
“Fear of closure is enough to keep us quiet,” said veteran journalist Tido Mhando, CEO of Mwananchi Communications, which publishes three private papers, according to the report.
The CPJ said the government had routinely used the 1976 Newspaper Act to ban publications it deems seditious. Although Tanzania has signed the Open Government Partnership Initiative, a U.S.-led multilateral effort to promote transparency, it has so far not made any commitment to pass legislation on access to information, it added.
The CPJ report, compiled by Tom Rhodes, documented 10 serious attacks and threats on the press in the past year, including the brutal killing of veteran TV journalist Daudi Mwangosi in September 2012. It also mentioned an attack on the chairman of the Tanzania Editors Forum, Absalom Kibanda, in March, in which unknown assailants chopped off his finger, pierced his left eye and removed several of his teeth and finger nails.
The report said attacks on journalists call into question Tanzania’s international image as a place of good governance, transparency and democracy.
“Few in the international community seem aware that the Tanzanian leadership has become so thin-skinned or that press conditions have declined so much,” it added.
Tanzania has been losing ground in the global press freedom rankings. In the 2013 World Press Freedom Index, it fell 36 places from the previous year and is now ranked number 70 out of 179 countries surveyed.
The report also warned that attacks on journalists undermine independent news coverage at a time when the country’s main opposition party, Chama Cha Demokrasia na Maendeleo (CHADEMA) is making what the CPJ described as real inroads against the ruling party, which has dominated Tanzanian politics since independence.
But police officers are not the only people reporters have to worry about. Sometimes they need to be wary of other journalists.
“Politicians are dividing journalists against one another. Since many journalists are not financially stable, it’s easy for officials to destabilise them,” said Neville Meena, secretary-general of the Tanzania Editors Forum, in the report.
As tensions increase, the level of distrust among journalists has also risen. Local journalists freely tell stories of colleagues hacking their computer files or conspiring with police against them.