Press Freedom in Tanzania
Author: Jaffar Mjasiri
Originally Published at Peace and Conflict Monitor on: 09/16/2005
In this era of globalization the world is engaged in promoting freedom of expression. But this is often more easily said than done. Today freedom of expression is embedded in the constitution of every democracy around the world, because for any democratic government to be effective, it has to allow free flow of information and exchange of views.
But in developing countries, this freedom is a new phenomenon. For instance There were so many despotic leaders in Africa who led with an iron fist, and this repressive situation had denied people their constitutional rights of exercising their freedom to express themselves. Recently, the former President of Tanzania, Al-Hajj Ali Hassan Mwinyi, who is regarded as the architect of democracy in Tanzania, has said the influence of democracy had molded Tanzanians to develop a culture of reading newspapers.This is a clear indication that freedom of press is dominating peoples’ lives all over the country. The proponents of public opinion came up with a paradigm that the media has the emancipatory role of creating dialogue in any civilized and democratic society.This emancipatory role extends to other forms of freedom, such as public debate, whereby everybody has the right to express his or her viewpoint. It can also take place in the form of constructive discussion between political parties, religious groups and civilizations. In view of this, it is highly commendable for political parties to engage themselves in constructive criticisms of their manifestos through debate, to enable the electorate to make a rational decision while choosing their leaders.
Scribes shouldn’t only criticize governments that curtail freedom of expression (media alone), or its draconian laws meant to gag peoples’ voices. In a broader sense, freedom of expression is not limited to media but extends to all other freedoms like freedom of assembly, freedom of worship, freedom of association, etc. What most writers tend to forget is that journalism, being the fourth estate of the government, is as answerable to the people as the government in power.But this concept of a free media can only be delivered once other media stakeholders have equal representation in airing their views and concerns, in all spheres, socially, economically and politically.
The Media’s Responsibility
As a caution, however, the knife cuts both ways. According to some public opinion experts, the public sphere is an imaginary space in any given society which ought to be free from any form of interference by those in power. This implies that even the media can infringe on peoples’ rights because they control flow of information too.
Much as governments have legislated laws and regulations which are meant to cut the media down size, this measure should not be used by the media as excuse to justify the victimization of those who are in government positions. Members of the public have a lot of misgivings about the media today because on many occasions it has indulged itself in trivial issues and forgotten that its ultimate goal is to be a watchdog. If the media is to be respected by the people, it has to foster a better understanding in society. It should not fuel sectarianism or tribalism, or undermine a political party which is committed to peace, or incite people to hate one another.
People who serve in the media are well placed to understand the agony of being subjected to draconian laws. This is because when such bans are slapped on them, the widest public forum turns into just another cramped space. With the emergence of a multiparty system, some unscrupulous journalists have advanced their own interests in covering politicians, putting aside the ethics that journalists ought to be following.It is pathetic to see how yellow journalism has resurfaced where the media has used sensationalism to advance their personal monetary gain rather than serve the public interest or public good. It would be a shock for some of us to learn that in journalism, most often people preach what they neither practice nor believe. The reason for these current conflicts of interest is that people who are considered to be the icons of this profession have demonstrated to the public that they have the ability to call the shots in politics in favour of some candidates, and thus they abuse for their own personal gain the old adage of the pen being mightier than the sword.
Journalism in Tanzania
In journalism schools, the first thing students are taught is how to avoid prejudice, biases, and opinions. Responsible journalists will always leave their biases behind and examine an issue objectively.Of course, the degree of objectivity varies from one person to another. But the final goal is to provide just the facts, nothing else.
In a country like Tanzania, where journalism is still in its infancy, the public cannot expect wonders from the amateurs who are employed by the media houses. Yet it is high time that the power of this fourth estate be reinforced in this country. Those who own the media should create better methods of educating and motivating their staff and work out a remuneration package which reflects the actual cost of living for these journalists. For example, Tanzania is now counting down to the election day, slated to take place in October. There is every indication that to a greater extent the media has been manipulated to emphasize reports on well-to-do candidates rather than ordinary ones.
It is worth pointing out that if the media falls into the hands of those who are using wealth to win the electorates, we are heading for a serious disaster. It will not be their competence that brings them to power, but their wealth. Also, the election campaign trail should not be hijacked by elements of the society who are promoting sectarianism, nepotism, tribalism, and materialism in the name of a free press. The media once again shows that it has the ultimate responsibility to set the agenda, but it should never forget that it also has the social responsibility to ensure that all the political parties are given equal opportunities to air their perspectives to the public. Political parties should not be manipulating the press to try outsmart their opponents with dirty tricks and illegal campaign methods. Every politician is aware of what an illegal campaign tantamount to.
The media has an even greater responsibility to report objectively in this election period. Apart from informing and educating the public, it has the moral obligation to transmit the cultural heritage of any society to the next generation.This implies that if the oncoming election will not be free and fair this will have an adverse effect on the character of future elections to be held in this country.It is incumbent upon every Tanzanian, including those members of the media, to preserve peace and stability that our country has sustained since independence. Today, Tanzania stands out of the crowd as a model of an effective pluralist system in Africa. If the media will demonstrate to the world that it is ready to accommodate views and opinions of political candidates regardless of their faith, tribe or political inclinations, this would breed a healthy political dialogue, encouraging all political parties and their supporters to embrace elections whole heartedly. While in Uganda recently, President Benjamin Mkapa said it all: that a free press is not a license to lie, to misrepresent, and to insult…[rather it] seeks to build not to destroy, to heal not to kill. Therefore the media should give all the political candidates equal opportunities to sell their policies to the members of the public. The media has no right to be judgmental. Let the forces of supply and demand determine which ideas should prevail in the marketplace. The media should be aware that man is a rational being, and should not underestimate his ability to make his own decisions. Man is capable of differentiating good from evil.
Bio: Jaffar Mjasiri is a freelance journalist. He was also a correspondent for the Ugandan Weekly Observer. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.