Tanzanian authorities yesterday suspended Talib Ussi Hamad, a journalist with the Daima daily newspaper, for six months simply for reporting on COVID-19, the latest in a string of attacks on the right to freedom of expression, access to information and media freedom during the pandemic.
Talib Hamad’s suspension comes just days after the Mwananchi daily newspaper had its license suspended after it posted a photo of President John Pombe Magufuli out shopping surrounded by a crowd of people, eliciting online discussion on the country’s approach to addressing COVID-19.
“Access to information is an essential part of the fight against COVID-19, yet the Tanzanian government is choosing to censor journalists and media outlets who report on the disease. These recent reprisals are clearly politically motivated – the Tanzanian government’s sensitivity to criticism is costing journalists their rights and livelihoods,” said Deprose Muchena, Amnesty International’s Director for East and Southern Africa.
“In recent years Tanzania has increasingly used repressive laws to silence and punish journalists for doing their jobs. We are calling on the authorities to end this crackdown on media freedom and stop using the law as a tool of censorship and repression.”
The authorities cited provisions of the restrictive Media Services Act in issuing both suspensions. Talib Hamad was suspended for allegedly reporting about a COVID-19 patient without the patient’s consent. Mwananchi newspaper was suspended and fined five million Tanzanian shillings (about USD 2200) for publishing a photo of the president buying fish in his home village of Chato, in northwestern Tanzania, on 13 April, apparently breaching global social distancing guidelines. Authorities said the photo was not recent.
Three other media organizations – Star Media Tanzania Ltd, Multichoice Tanzania Ltd and Azam Digital Broadcast Ltd – were on 2 April each fined the same amount and ordered to apologize for “transmission of false and misleading information” on the country’s approach to managing COVID-19.
“The authorities must immediately lift the suspension of the journalist and the media houses They must not be penalized or sanctioned for doing their job,” said Deprose Muchena.
The media plays a crucial role in informing the public about the factual situation and measures taken by governments in response to COVID-19. Its capacity to operate freely should not be unduly restricted.
Some of the laws that have been used in recent years to stifle the right to freedom of expression, access to information and media freedom and silence critical voices are the Media Services Act, the Electronic and Postal Communications (Digital and Other Broadcasting Networks and Services) Regulations, Electronic and Postal Communications (Radio and Television Content) Regulations, and Electronic and Postal Communications (Online Content) Regulations.