In open societies where democracy flourish, the media plays a critical watchdog role by not only putting into check but also questioning the excesses of the government. Sadly, in Tanzanian media space, these pillars seem to lack.
The recent re-election of Tanzania President Dr. John Pombe Magufuli, in which he garnered 12.5 million votes in the October 28 polls – to serve for a second and final five-year term did not come as a surprise.
Magufuli, a former high school Chemistry and Mathematics teacher garnered 85 percent of the votes as his major challenger, Tundu Lissu of the Chadema party got a paltry 1.9 million votes – 13 percent of the total votes cast – according to the electoral commission.
What surprised me though was the lack of robust media engagement on the elections, the open lack of checks and balances by the Tanzanian press as it reduced itself to mere cheerleaders.
In open societies where democracy flourish, the media plays a critical watchdog role by not only putting into check but also questioning the excesses of the government.
Most importantly, the coverage of competing political interests such as elections should not only be seen to be above board but fair and balanced.
Sadly, in the Tanzanian elections context, these cardinals were thrown out of the window, as the ruling party Chama Cha Mapinduzi(CCM) aided by a well-oiled government machinery got acres of coverage – in the mainstream papers and on major radios and television networks.
In retrospect, the main opposition party and other like-minded smaller parties were left to whine at media marginalization and constant harassment by law enforcers.
Even the state corporation Tanzania Broadcasting Corporation(TBC)which is fully funded by the taxpayer showed open bias for Magufuli’s CCM party, raising pertinent questions on the impartiality, independence, and professionalism of journalists in Tanzania during the election cycle. Could it by design or simply a matter of circumstances? Are there policy frameworks in place to protect the industry from government excesses?
To help us understand why the media took this direction one needs to look at the history of media freedom in Tanzania moreso under the reign of President Magufuli.
Under his watch, since taking over in 2015 from Retired President Jakaya Kikwete, the media has been wrought with a myriad of challenges; state sanctioned arrests, harassment and fines, has been the order of the day.
The case of Tanzania’s investigative journalist Erick Kabendera, seen as vocal in his criticism of the regime, comes to mind.
Kabendera was last year arrested in what observers decried as trumped-up charges due to his critical reporting and ordered to pay TSh275 million (£92,180) on charges of tax evasion and money laundering.
His ill treatment by the regime, according to industry observers, was to lay the ‘ground-rules’ for journalists and serve as a warning, heading into the decisive elections.
Fast-forward, the script seems to have gone to plan, as major newspaper outlets and leading television networks in Tanzania remain meek and can’t dare raise a voice on the excesses of the regime raising pertinent questions on the role of journalists in advancing democracy and good governance.
Speaking to the Guardian at the time of Kabendera’s arrest, Muthoki Mumo, of the Committee to Protect Journalists(CPJ) described the charges against him as “transparent retaliation for critical journalism”, adding: “(We) are deeply concerned that even after months in detention without the prospect of bail, during which he suffered illness and lost his mother, Kabendera’s ordeal is not yet over as these cripplingly heavy fines continue to hang over his head.”
Granted that elections bring with it periods of heightened media coverage and reporting, with each political party wanting to win political power, the media is primarily expected to take its place at the high table by accurately reporting, analyzing and educating the masses on the happenings.
Search for Common Ground(SCG), a peace building organization, amplifies this view.
“Journalists have to go beyond a simple narration of the facts if they wish to engage in promoting peace and consolidating democracy, both of which are often fragile in such countries. When reporting or hosting a show, journalists must avoid being a simple window into the crises and conflict between opposing sides. The media has to avoid being used as an “instrument” serving a particular party. On the contrary, journalists must try to underline the common ground between candidates or give voice to neutral and apolitical people such as analysts and observers.”
To help us interrogate why the Tanzanian media performed badly on this front, and offer an insight, we need to also look at the other side of the coin too, to understand the environment under which most Tanzanian journalists operate.
Poor working conditions
Like most of their colleagues in Eastern Africa, the pay for many Tanzanian journalists is meagre, leaving them susceptible to inducement either from corporates, the political players or government agencies. In such a scenario achieving independence is almost next to impossible.
“If you can’t fight them, join them” becomes the guiding principle to many journalists in the country. Many operate within the environment of “Mtumikie kafiri utimize mradi wako”.
In the long run, ”to be safe”, one submits their professional skills to unethical practices where brown envelope journalism becomes too common.
I particularly recall an incident in which a media owner told his reporters not to bring their “know-it-all” habits to his business or else he’d have them fired. This points to a weak policy framework governing the sector and the lack of robust unions to protect journalists.
In the long run, under such a climate, journalists lack the muscle to stand up to be counted let alone offer the professional voice, checks and balances, when it comes to matters of supreme importance such as elections.
The civil society and the opposition which also need to be vibrant to offer a helping hand to the media have also been silenced with many of them fleeing in the wake of elections outcome which has seen state agencies crack on dissenting voices.
In a nutshell, Tanzanian journalists are chained in a three-prong format. The first level is by individual journalists. Editors have become the first roadblocks. Since some of them are already compromised, they try to slant coverage of political events and any other stories they may have interest on, the goal here is to have reports take a particular tone, strangling, at times, the reporter’s voice.
The second level of this chain block is by media owners themselves, who because of commercial interests, tend to influence their editorial coverages to take a particular direction, usually bootlicking the powers that be.
And lastly, is the state operatives who pull all stops to ensure the government agenda carries the day, by hook or crook.
Thus, many journalists are resigned to assuming the role of ‘serving’ the big men in Tanzania making the realization of an independent and vibrant media a dream that, at face value, may take ages to realise.
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