Gagging the watchdog

Think of Tanzania and you are drenched in a swirl of sweet memories because of its safari and rich wild life which attract almost a million tourists yearly.


You may also be seduced by the thoughts of their Father of Independence, the late Julius Kambarage Nyerere, the selfless, almost saintly political theorist who made Tanzania a proud African nation.


He is usually revered as “The Great Teacher” or “Mwalimu Mkuu,” in Kiswahili. But alas, the Tanzania of today has degenerated into one where journalists are becoming endangered species due to the undemocratic and defective policies of the present government in muzzling press freedom.


Just recently, the governmentof President John Magufuli rolled out new laws that restrict the media from reporting foreign contents “without permission.”


As if this was not enough, foreign journalists are now prohibited from reporting in the country unless accompanied by government officials.Local journalists too, are now legally obliged to seek state officials’ endorsement if they must cover the coronavirus pandemic in the country.


The issue is indeed disturbing and every lover of democracy and journalist worth his onions must speak out in condemnation of it in the strictest terms because as members of the fourth estate, we are tied to the same umbilical cord:what affects one, no matter the geographical location, affects the other.

This law is defective, malicious and not fit-for-purpose. It is only a dress rehearsal for something worse. More so, the president issetting a very bad precedent so much so that his successor might take this repression – if left unchallenged, to another level in the manner of the indignities meted out to The Nigerian Observer journalist, Minere Amakiri by the then Rivers State governor, Navy Commander Alfred Diete-Spiff, who ordered the reporter’s hair shaved with broken bottles after being given thirty-three strokes of the horsewhip simply because he covered a strike action without first seeking an authorisation from His Excellency.


I am incensed and sickened by this whole development, for what’s the essence of journalism if its practitioners must be teleguided and every article vetted before publication? Where is the journalistic independence to investigate and craft a story you consider right, from professionalism standpoint?

Every journalist istrained to a high standard and ipso factoshould know the line of demarcation between accuracy and sensationalism. In fact, unnecessary incursions and breaches of journalistic independence so enraged the late Dele Giwa, the assassinated Editor-in-Chief of Newswatch that he bared his mind in succinct terms in one of his write-ups, as extrapolated from “What a Country?” by Kunle Ajibade:“Nobody tells me what to write in my column. It is my property, and I guide it jealously, for it is my freedom to think and write as I see…”


Tanzania will be having a general election in October, and as observed, President Magufuli and his henchmen are on tenterhooks – and rightly so, as corruption runs rife in the country. In view of these promulgated draconian laws therefore, one candeduce that the president simply wants to manipulate the results of the election by silencing dissentersbeforehand and ordering foreign journalists and observers to hear from only one “genuine” source: his officials. As a matter of fact, the government itself is presently standing on wobbly legs, having been pilloried by the local press for its inability to rein in the coronavirus pandemic.


No wonder these reporters must now seek approval from a discredited government ignorant of the niceties of journalism. Everyone knows that Tanzania prides itself as a country with one of the most instructive mottos in East Africa, the so-called “Uhuru na Umoja” (Freedom and Unity), which I make bold to pooh-pooh as a mere diversionary chestnut.


Come to think of it, if the goddamn motto is to have any meaning at all, it must be tied to press freedom in its entirety. I was discussing this issue with one of my professional colleaguesthe other day, when he wondered why African leaders are always afraid of the written word. I could only hazard a guess as I was still numbed at President Magufuli’s brinkmanship.


However, Nobel laureate, Professor Wole Soyinka appeared to hit the nail right on the head in his prison memoir, The Man Died. Hear him: “Books and all forms of writing are objects of terror to those who seek to suppress the truth.” I rest my case. Martins Agbonlahor is a lawyer, journalist and author. He lives in Greater Manchester, United Kingdom.


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