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Rights Groups: Freedom of the Press Under Fire in Tanzania

FILE - In this Oct. 23, 2015, photo, Tanzania President John Magufuli addresses a rally in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania.
FILE - In this Oct. 23, 2015, photo, Tanzania President John Magufuli addresses a rally in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania.

Human rights organizations accuse Tanzania's government of using repressive legislation to muzzle the media, civil society and opposition politicians critical of the institution. The critics say cyber crime laws, which took effect two years ago, have been used against nine media organizations, with the Mwanahalisi newspaper the latest to be banned. Rights groups are calling on the government to align its laws with the practices and standards of the international community.

Mwanahalisi is the second newspaper to be banned in Tanzania in one year.

The government said the paper had violated previous warnings about articles criticizing President John Magufuli.

In a statement, the government points to five stories it considered offensive and called on the paper to retract some of them.

Mwanahalisi news editor Saed Kubenea says the paper has done nothing wrong.

Mwanahalisi newspaper has never written a story that is inciteful. We report facts that are liked by many readers and we point out where the government is going wrong. That’s our policy since the start of this newspaper,” he said.

Previous bans

This is the second time the newspaper has been banned in less than five years. The news outlet was banned in 2012 for publishing stories that allegedly threatened national security. After a three-year court battle, the ban was lifted.
Kubenea says they are hopeful they will get a similar ruling.

“Without a doubt, we will go to court to challenge this decision to ban our newspaper, and we believe the court will listen and give us justice,” he said.

Earlier this year, another newspaper, Mawio, was banned for two years after linking two retired presidents to dubious mining contracts. Rights groups criticized the ban as an attack on freedom of expression, which has been restricted since President Magufuli came to power in 2015.

In 2015 and 2016 the government adopted four pieces of legislation that rights groups say have been used to suppress the media and dissenting voices.

Similar concerns have been voiced by opposition politician Peter Msigwa, who was arrested this week for allegedly linking police to a gun attack on another opposition member earlier in the month.

“I spoke about how this government reacts when it's criticized just like Tundu Lisu used to do it. As Chadema party, we feel that the international community has interest on this case," he said. "I also spoke about the Magufuli administration that shows signs of dictatorship. It doesn’t want to be criticized and advised and they said what I said was inciteful.”

Tundu Lisu is another opposition lawmaker and a government critic. He was shot by unknown gunmen in Tanzania earlier this month.

The legislator has been arrested by police several times and charged with incitement.

Henry Maina is head of the East Africa office of Article 19, a global non-governmental organization that promotes freedom of expression and information worldwide. He says the silencing of the critics is not good for democracy.

“We are going to have a situation where the media, the civil society, and the opposition can no longer raise their voices to hold the government to account because the instruments of power are clearly being used to incarceration, jail and in ornately open cases," he said.

In the 2015 election, President Magufuli received 58 percent of the vote, compared to previous elections in which 80 percent of Tanzanians voted for the ruling CCM party.

The East African nation is considered stable compared to its neighbors.