Photo illustration by John Lyman
Media /05 Mar 2019
03.05.19

Why Would Tanzania Suspend The Citizen? Because it Can.

This week, the government of Tanzania shut down The Citizen newspaper for seven days for violating an obscure regulation regarding reporting on the Central Bank. The Citizen is the voice of the middle class. Tanzania is a classic developing country with a predominately rural population whose views are bedrock status quo, and a growing urban middle class, which is expanding its view of the world. In many senses across Africa, the direction and momentum of that middle class is the heart of that country’s progress towards development.

Until this administration, that was not the case in Tanzania. Famously, the party of Julius Nyerere, the CCM, has been winning election after election for generations. Tanzania’s reasonable, rational transition from colonialism to independence set a measured, common sense tone in which the opposition was politely heard but could never tip the balance away from the ‘Party of State.’ That stability was the primary ingredient of Tanzania’s development to date.

Part of the CCM formula for those many years was a strong supportive local media. In a way very similar to the political and developmental equations, Tanzanian media was a two-pronged business. There was the popular, village targeted, Swahili part and the middle class, more urban, English part.

Another interesting aspect of the Tanzania press sector was its success. Tanzania not only had an active and energetic press for which it was famous.

Other African countries looked at Tanzania, dowdy, goody-goody Tanzania, and say “yes but they have a good press, a free press.” The fact that the press was homegrown, entrepreneurial, and was seen as a sort of counterbalance. People might think of Tanzania as socialist, and led by a single party. But look at the press! Not only are they free but they make money! Record-breaking money! They have press moguls like Reginald Mengi: he’s one of the richest men in Africa!

Where Tanzania’s system almost seemed designed to keep them running in the middle of the pack, its press implied the system was also the foundation of excellence and success. But times change.

The present situation is showing something quite different. The president is a scion of Nyerere’s party, but the governing equation of the last 50 years doesn’t sit as comfortably as of old. The CCM, Party of State, may still be the hope of the majority but the president is splitting himself off from the traditional consensus and is seen as acting for his own interests, rather than the general good. It’s a political and not corrupt direction but it is disruptive, or destructive, nonetheless.

“Magufuli wants to restrict reproductive rights.”
“Magufuli wants to partially ban public rallies.”
“Magufuli wants to close news outlets.”

In the Tanzanian press spectrum, The Citizen is perhaps the most aware of the degree to which recent presidential steps move away from the traditional compact. They are playing their traditional role, it’s the president, and his blossoming autocratic agenda, which is new.

The National Bank’s censure is a convenient hook on which the government, by which we judge the president, can deliver a clear and unmistakable message. The press should stay in line. The consensus of recent decades was real, but at the pleasure of government. The Citizen should understand quite clearly: They have been rapped on the knuckles and will be expected to toe the line in the future.

What will they do? That one is hard to say. One thing is certain if it was Nyerere in a corner he would make every effort to fight his way out and make it right. But in today’s environment, things are different. Authority is taking on new power and making the point clearly understood because it can.

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