Tanzania’s proposed legislative amendments threaten to censor media

The reward money would be issued for information that leads to the arrest and successful prosecution of the people responsible for the crimes, which were committed over the past two years. Picture: iStock

Legislative amendments include establishing a statutory film board, which would have the power to censor films exhibited in the country, among the suggested amendments.

The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) has urged Tanzanian lawmakers to revise a set of proposed legislative amendments, some of which would pose undue restrictions on freedom of expression.

The amendments, bundled into a bill made public on June 19, would affect eight pieces of legislation, according to CPJ’s review of the bill, the CPJ said in a statement.

Amnesty International has also voiced concerns, saying that the proposed legislation currently under consideration in Tanzania’s parliament will, if passed into law, have dire implications for human rights in the country.

One proposed amendment would remove the current ban on publishing information that could “discredit official statistics”, but would add an onerous approval process for those wishing to challenge government data or publish “non-official” statistics, with criminal penalties for noncompliance.

The bill also establishes a statutory film board, which would have the power to censor films exhibited in the country, and add a requirement that all foreign companies shooting films in Tanzania, including documentaries, submit raw footage of their work to the board.

“These proposed amendments, if passed, will harden the already punitive legal restrictions that journalists in Tanzania confront every day on the job,” CPJ sub-Saharan Africa representative Muthoki Mumo said.

“We urge lawmakers to reconsider these amendments and to make room for inclusive consultations with members of the public, including civil society and the press,” Mumo said.

The bill, formally known as the Written Laws (Miscellaneous Amendments) (No3) Act, 2019, is dated May 30, but was not released for public review until June 19, according to two civil society representatives who spoke to CPJ on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisal.

Members of the public and civil society organisations could submit comments on the bill to June 22, according to those representatives.

On Friday afternoon, members of civil society, having only been invited on Friday morning to provide feedback on the bill, provided hurried submissions to parliament, denying them a fair opportunity to properly scrutinise the sweeping changes proposed.

“The Tanzania government must allow for meaningful participation in law-making processes by giving people adequate time to review, collate, and present their views on a law that will impact their lives enormously,” Amnesty International deputy director for East Africa, the Horn, and the Great Lakes Sarah Jackson said.

The bill was filed under a certificate of urgency, meaning its approval process through parliament would be fast-tracked, according to the Tanzanian parliament’s standing orders, the CPJ said.

The Written Laws Bill would effect changes to eight existing Acts of Parliament. Some of these were the Companies Act, the Non-Governmental Organisations (NGO) Act, the Statistics Act, and the Films and Stage Plays Act.

The proposed amendments to the Companies Act would give the Registrar of Companies broad new powers and wide discretion to de-register a company on the basis of undefined and vague terms, such as “terrorism financing” or “operating contrary to its objectives”.

“As currently worded, the registrar can de-register companies at will for, among other reasons, associating with or supporting the activities of NGOs, which would create uncertainty in the business and employment sectors, and may reduce access to vital services to communities across the country,” Jackson said.

The proposed amendments to the NGO Act likewise gave the Registrar of NGOs sweeping and wide discretionary powers to suspend organisations and evaluate and investigate their operations. The law would also require these organisations, including community-based and self-help groups, to publish their annual audited financial reports in mainstream media, imposing a cost burden that could bankrupt small, grassroots organisations.

Amendments to the Statistics Act introduced new procedures for publishing non-official information and created an offence of dissemination of statistical information that criminalised fact checking by making illegal the publication of data “that invalidates, distorts, or discredits official government statistics”.

“These proposals imply the government has the monopoly on national data and the exclusive ability to analyse the data. This is the information age and the government of Tanzania must not criminalise access to information,” said Jackson.

The bill also proposed to amend the Films and Stage Plays Act to introduce censorship of foreign productions filmed in the country. If passed, foreign content producers would have to submit all raw footage, where it was shot, and a final copy of the production to the Tanzania Film Board. Producers would not be allowed to leave the country until they had completed and signed a prescribed clearance form and submitted it to the Film Board.

“Tanzania must refrain from taking yet another dangerous step deeper into censorship by targeting foreign producers, after already restricting media freedom,” Jackson said.

The proposed amendments of these and other laws presented to parliament on Friday afternoon were expected to be debated and passed into law in one week, on June 27.

Amnesty International urged the authorities to scrap this bill and ensure that any proposed amendments were in line with Tanzania’s constitutional and international obligations and commitments to respect, protect, promote, and fulfil the rights to freedom of expression, peaceful assembly, and association.

It was crucial that the authorities pursue any proposed amendments in consultation with independent civil society and take concrete steps to end the relentless assault on human rights in the country, Amnesty International said.

– African News Agency (ANA)

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