Tanzania’s President John Pombe Magufuli strode into office in November promising to reduce corruption, cut wasteful spending and improve public services. These initiatives are welcome in the East African nation, which, while seen as a bastion of political stability in an at-times volatile region, consistently ranks low on human development and high on graft. But Magufuli’s government imposed new restrictions on the media recently, and brought that commitment into question.
Magufuli’s popularity ballooned when he canceled expensive independence-day celebrations in December and instead encouraged citizens to come together and clean the streets. Some citizens thought that Magufuli getting his hands dirty picking up trash symbolized his promise to tackle corruption, which may have been his intention.
Tanzanians and other close observers started applying Magufuli’s thrift to their own lives, asking #WhatWouldMagufuliDo – and posting the hilarious results on Twitter. But the hashtag’s meaning has shifted since last week, when his government started restricting the media. There’ve been media bans in Tanzania before — but many expected better from Magufuli.
The first move came on Jan. 15, when Nape Nnauye, Tanzania’s new information minister, announced a permanent ban on the printed weekly Mawio (a Kiswahili-language newspaper). The government banned Mawio for “inflammatory” reporting. Its publisher and managing editor said the ban shows the government can’t bear criticism.
Days later, the Tanzania Communications Regulatory Authority (TCRA) – the agency that regulates the country’s communications and broadcasting sectors – announced a three-month suspension of six television and 21 radio stations if they failed to pay license fees. Within a day of TCRA’s announcement, 15 of the 20 radio stations and one of the six television stations had paid their required dues.
Civil society activists in the country cried foul, saying the suspensions of those that did not pay infringed on the public’s right to information. There’s a widespread feeling that Tanzania’s government often applies rules and regulations selectively, upping enforcement primarily when it feels threatened.
How watching more TV shapes political attitudes and participation in Tanzania
There’s some reason to conclude that the government is shutting down broadcasting because it wants to ban criticism. We say that based in part on our research. One of us (Carlitz) examined media exposure and political attitudes in an ongoing project with Columbia political scientist Johannes Urpelainen. Looking at two waves of the Tanzania National Panel Survey, we found that more consumption of media is associated with more political participation.
What’s more, when Tanzanians start watching more TV, their approval ratings of national politicians tend to fall.
That’s consistent with decades of scholarship on U.S. politics, which suggests that information, awareness, and a sense of political efficacy are key in prompting political participation. Reading, listening to, or watching the news doesn’t just increase people’s awareness of politics. It can also give them confidence in their ability to make a difference — thus encouraging them to get more publicly involved.
And if more media exposure is linked to more active citizens who are less happy with national leadership, then government limits on the news media make perfect strategic sense. Media suppression is a tried and tested method employed by dominant party regimes to remain in power. Magufuli’s government could be protecting against further erosion of public support for the ruling party, Chama cha Mapinduzi (CCM), which has dominated Tanzanian politics since independence in 1961.
A clear majority of citizens have supported the CCM’s continued hold on power. Despite predictions that the 2015 election would be unprecedentedly close, Mr. Magufuli won 58 percent of the vote, while his main challenger, Edward Lowassa, got only 40 percent.
Still, Magufuli’s margin of victory was the smallest that any CCM candidate has ever had. In 2005, Jakaya Kikwete took office with more than 80 percent of the vote, compared to about 12 percent for runner-up Ibrahim Lipumba of the Civic United Front (CUF) party. The 2010 elections were closer, but CCM’s Kikwete won reelection comfortably with 63 percent of the vote, compared with 27 percent for Chadema’s Willibrod Slaa.
The ruling party has advantages that help it stay in power
CCM is not in the business of stealing elections. It’s stayed on top partly because the ruling party has advantages in its dealings with the media and the opposition. Tanzania’s constitution provides for freedom of speech — but it does not specifically guarantee freedom of the press. Tanzania’s independent press has been increasingly bold in covering government corruption, but has often been muzzled by government media bans.
For example, in 2008 the minister of information banned the independent newspaper MwanaHalisi for three months after it published an article implying that then-President Jakaya Kikwete’s elder son was involved in illegal activity. The newspaper was banned again indefinitely in July 2012 on what media freedom advocates call “vague charges of sedition and false reporting.”
In 2013, the government banned the widely read newspapers Mwananchi and Mtanzania. It then suspended circulation of The East African in January 2015, accusing the paper of having a negative agenda against Tanzania. (The East African was just allowed to return last week.)
The current Mawio ban smacks of politics. The “inflammatory” articles were about the ongoing stalemate in semi-autonomous Zanzibar, where poll results were nullified after accusations of “irregularities” – including apparent victory for the main opposition party. (Although part of Tanzania, Zanzibaris vote not only for a national Tanzanian president, but also for a Zanzibari president and assembly. Until now, the post of the president was always occupied by a member of the ruling party.)
So it’s not surprising that the independent international organization Freedom House consistently rates Tanzania’s media as only “partly free.”
As minister of works, Mr. Magufuli was nicknamed “The Bulldozer,” someone who got things done, a technocrat who had no links to the many corruption scandals that recently rocked the country. As president, he has been bulldozing tax evasion and perceived redundancies. For instance, he slashed the cabinet from 30 to 19 posts, merging some ministries and getting rid of others.
Such efforts to kutumbua majipu (literally, “to burst boils”) have brought him widespread praise. But he may prove unwilling to raze the country’s restrictive legal and regulatory environment.
The question now is not, “What would Magufuli do?” but “What will Magufuli do?”
Constantine Manda is a doctoral student in political science at Yale University. Follow him on Twiter at @msisiri.