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Gagging the watchdog

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Tanzania’s president John Magufuli. Daniel Hayduk/AFP/Getty Images

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 government of 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 is setting 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 33 strokes of the horsewhip simply because he covered a strike action without first seeking an authorisation from His Excellency.

It may even take a more horrifying dimension like the blood-curdling murder of the Russian investigative journalist, Anna Politkovskaya by the Russian FSB for her bold revelation of the role Russia played in the Chechen War between 1999 and 2005. Curiously, her assassination was said to be a birthday gift to President Vladimir Putin who was celebrating his birthday on that accursed day. How evil!

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 is trained to a high standard and ipso facto should 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 next month: 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 can deduce that the president simply wants to manipulate the results of the election by silencing dissenters before hand 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. I still find it difficult to comprehend Tanzania’s abysmal atrophication, for, was this not the country which in the late 60s and 70s gave succour to radical writers and intellectuals fleeing from tyrannical governments the world over? It would be recalled that the great Pan-Africanist and author of the mega-selling political treatise: “How Europe Underdeveloped Africa,” the late Dr. Walter Rodney, had settled in this country upon his expulsion from his native land of Guyana due to his radicalism. In fact, a host of other Caribbean writers and leftist intellectuals including Rodney himself, contributed in no small measure to the development of Tanzania and played significant roles in the 6th Pan-African Congress held in that country in 1974. Therefore, to see this lovely nation driven down a cul-de-sac by a set of ideologically-deficient politicians leaves my stomach churning.

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 colleagues the 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.
Agbonlahor, a lawyer, journalist and author, wrote from Greater Manchester, United Kingdom.


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