Missing journalist caps off tough year for press freedom in Tanzania | DW Freedom | Speech. Expression. Media. | DW | 08.12.2017
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Missing journalist caps off tough year for press freedom in Tanzania

Newspapers are calling for the government to investigate the disappearance of a journalist who has not been seen in weeks. This is just the latest in a series of threats to a free and independent press in Tanzania.

On November 20, newspaper journalist Azory Gwanda left his house outside of Dar es Salaam with men in a white SUV. He told his wife that he was going on a special assignment and would be gone for a while. The car then drove off and he has not been seen since.

His wife became concerned when he did not return and contacted his employer, Mwananchi Communications Limited (MCL), who told her that he was not on assignment. The media house announced his disappearance this week and called on the government of President John Magufuli to step up their investigation.

MCL's managing editor, Francis Nanai, fears that the journalist may have been taken by officials connected to the government because of articles Gwanda recently wrote on mysterious killings in the area.

"MCL does not know who kidnapped Gwanda and why. If he is being held for any crime he is suspected to have committed, then those holding him should charge him in court as the law requires and let justice take its course," said Nanai at a recent press conference where he was joined by a number of MCL employees dressed in black.

Dar es Salaam Police Chief Lazaro Mambosasa said he was "shocked" by Gwanda's disappearance and promised a full investigation.

MCL was joined by other media houses that put the journalist's face on their covers in an effort to persuade those who took him to #BringBackAzory. The hashtag has since been trending as people in Tanzania and beyond are calling for his safe return.

A worrying trend

President Magufuli took power in October 2015 and has slowly been tightening the laws that govern press freedom in the country leading police and ministry officials to increase their actions against media houses.

"I would like to tell media owners - be careful, watch it. If you think you have that kind of freedom, (it is) not to that extent," Magufuli said at a public event in March. This comment followed another in January where the president said that the days of newspapers acting unethically were "numbered."

Just in 2017, four newspapers have been suspended or shut down. The most recent was the Swahili daily Tanzania Daima, which was suspended for 90 days after being accused of spreading "false information" in a story about anti-retroviral drug use for people with HIV. The editor called the move "unfair" and "unlawful."

"We are extremely concerned that Tanzania is using public order as an excuse to frustrate the flow of information and public debate," said Angela Quintal, Africa coordinator for the Committee to Protect Journalists, after another newspaper was suspended for two years in June. That paper had just published a story linking two former presidents to corrupt mining deals.

More power to government

Many of the moves to shutter or suspend media outlets came after the government passed the Media Services Act 2016 in November of that year. The act abolished self-regulation of the media and created a statutory media council to oversee everything from major news outlets to blogs. This would give the government the power to ban or suspend publishers. Criminal penalties were also introduced for offenses such as defamation, sedition and publishing false statements.

John Magufuli Präsident Tansania (Imago/Zumapress/Egyptian President Office)

Opposition figures have criticized Magufuli's heavy-handed approach to press freedom

"This new bill poses a severe threat to free expression and press freedom in Tanzania," said Scott Griffen, director of press freedom programs at the International Press Institute.

According to the 2017 World Press Freedom Index published by Reporters Without Borders (RSF), Tanzania dropped 12 places from 2016 to 83 out of 180. While this is the best score in East Africa, RSF stated that the climate for journalism "has not improved since John Magufuli's election."

The question remains how far the president, nicknamed "the Bulldozer," will go to consolidate power and whether there will be more limits on freedom of the press and free expression. Through all the controversy, Magufuli remains popular with most Tanzanians mainly because of his ongoing crackdown on government corruption.

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