Open Letter to Tanzanian president Samia Suluhu on need to restore civic space

Your excellency, we can improve professionalism in the media in Tanzania outside legal means.

In Summary

•Your excellency, just to remind that the issue of tensions between government and the media is its not unique the issue of Media and Government adversarial relation is not new and unique to Tanzania.

•Government should not be worried to a level to cripple media through control through the various agencies established through the Media Services Act, but open to consider other regulatory mechanisms that will minimize tensions.

Screen grab of Samia Suluhu as she is sworn-in as Tanzania's President.
Screen grab of Samia Suluhu as she is sworn-in as Tanzania's President.
Image: TBC

Your Excellency, I allow me to send my condolences to you, the family and Tanzanians on the untimely demise of President Hon Dr John Magufuli. I pray for your strength at this sad moment.

As we prepare on the transitional processes, and given the fact that after the mourning your table is likely to get full, I would like to remind you of a few small things that are likely to get lost as you settle, but which have big impact on the work of journalists and the media in general.

Am sure when doing the post analysis of how the information on the death of the president was handled and the confusion and trauma it cost to the people emotionally, the issue of a free, independent and professional media and pro active information disclosure of information of public nature is vital in a country.

To allow people to think, talk, exchange information and associate is critical in national development, and is a fundamental human rights that must be protected. Hopefully, the protection of civic space will be among your priorities as you embark on your leadership journey.

Space a minute and reflect on the space and advantages that will come by allowing people to share credible information- that people especially media works very well when allowed to self regulate.

While each country has a unique experience and needs, and many of the decisions including legal regimes enacted in Tanzania are geared towards solving internal issues specific to the country, given the country is a signatory to global and regional conventions relating to freedom of expression and access to information, your excellency, please consider either through parliamentary processes or executive orders, consider the review of these laws, which have limited full realization of some human rights.

Your excellency, the most urgent that might require a little attention, but if reviewed will have a huge impact on the lives of many people include the Media Service Act, 2016, the Cyber Crimes Act, 2015 and their respective Regulations, the Electronic and Postal Communications (Online Content Regulations), 2018 and amendment of the Statistics Act, and the Media Services Rules.

A window of dialogue with stakeholders to accommodate on the experiences learnt since the operationalization of the said laws and administrative codes will be very ideal. To consider alternative ways of getting the same concerns that led to such laws addressed without further alienating a section of the populace.

While Article 18 of the Constitution of the United Republic of Tanzania provides for the freedom of expression and opinion premised on Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), which the country is a signatory to, a number of laws as currently enacted make the realization of the Article almost problematic.

I know the small matter of the continued attacks and restrictions on journalists and independent media is domestic may be and might merit attention as you become busy, its concerning and does not augur well- as a mother, clobbering and inuring journalists, closing down media houses thereby rendering journalists jobless is not welcome and a strong believer in human rights, I know you can ensure a professional media through other means.

Your excellency, just to remind that the issue of tensions between government and the media is its not unique the issue of Media and Government adversarial relation is not new and unique to Tanzania, and government should not be worried to a level to cripple media through control through the various agencies established through the Media Services Act, but open to consider other regulatory mechanisms that will minimize tensions through considering to delay the full implementation of the Act, and consider through dialogue with stakeholders to try the co-regulation method. A common agreed approach for both Government and industry players and other sectors of the society is the most ideal.

Media only needs a conducive working environment, strong respect for access to information framework and media and government dialogue, investment in media development interventions and trainings, and it is the best enabler of public participation, good governance and national development.

Its not the enemy as presented that needs control and policing, but requires room for professional growth, professional regulation and space to exercise their social responsibility. Invest more in media development through increasing funds for training, media and government engagement, tax rebates on print and broadcast equipment, introduce media diversity and development funds instead of media control.

The Co-regulation model involves both Government and non-state actors coming together to form an independent statutory media council, that is independent and free from Government, Advertisers, media owners and journalists influence. Co-regulation involves government, independent regulatory agencies, industry, independent self-regulatory agencies, civil society groups and citizens/consumers in an overlapping set of relationships.

Media regulations is not going to done through external means by non-media organizations creating some many laws and administrative codes but journalists and media stakeholders themselves through a conducive legal regime that accepts that journalism is s profession and not a craft.

Your excellency, we can improve professionalism in the media in Tanzania outside legal means including establishing public editor desks and internal handling procedures in media houses.

Tim Dwyer in his book: “Media Convergence” notes that in the new networked media spheres, existing laws, policies and regulation for content, ownership and control need to change to take care of the new media formats. Peter Lunt and Sonia Livingstone in their book: Media Regulation and giving the examples of reforms in media regulation in the UK and parts of the Western World notes that media regulation in a global networked world, media relies on individual professionals acting responsibly.

Prof Vinod Kumar in the book Global Trends in Media says journalism ethics is a species of applied professional ethics whose application and evaluation is only relevant when its applied to the most common basic problems that face journalists in the field including avoiding bias, distinguishing news from opinion, minimizing harm and reporting the truth.

The Writer works at the Media Council of Kenya. [email protected]