Press Freedom in Zanzibar: Despite Improvements, Still a Long Way To Go

In the past few months, the government in Zanzibar, a semi-autonomous island off the coast of Tanzania, has reportedly licensed nine private electronic and four print media outlets. With this move, a small window for independent media may be opening in a country that has for a number of years, shown a very poor press freedom record. RAP 21 investigates.

Currently the media is not very free in Zanzibar, says Assah Mwambene, Zanzibar bureau chief for the Daily News, Tanzanias national newspaper. We do have different newspapers, but they channel the opinion of the government. Most newspapers in operation remain state-owned, and there is very little room for criticism – essentially there is no independent reporting on the government.

Press freedom is much greater on the mainland, but in Zanzibar, which maintains certain economic and political links with Tanzania, there is a stark contrast; restrictive press laws, a government that continues to be hostile to criticism and a fractured society makes for a very complex media situation.

It is difficult to have a free and fair press in Zanzibar because society is polarized and almost everyone takes a political position. Currently, the majority of impartial information comes from the mainland, says Gideon Shoo, task manager for the Tanzanian elections media monitoring project 2005.

Ali J. Shamhuna, Minister of State for Zanzibar says the press freedom situation in Zanzibar is very calm”. The Minister admits there is censorship, but asserts this is normal. “There is a code of conduct that has to be respected, the media has to follow the laws of the country. Zanzibar has a very high standard of democracy, he says.

Zanzibar is deeply divided between two opposing political parties, the Civic United Front (CUF) and the ruling Chama cha Mapinduzi (CCM) party which has been in power since 1995, winning seats again in 2000. Both election results were contested by the CUF and violence broke out as a result. Presidential and Parliamentary elections are set to take place again in October of this year.

Othman Maalim, a journalist and editor of the Press Club in Zanzibar, maintains press freedom on the island has improved dramatically in recent years. There are no problems anymore regarding press freedom. Since the new government came to power, there have been many changes and among them is press freedom. There is no censorship anymore. Journalists are now working well and properly. They are not harassed or threatened anymore.

Yet Mwambene tells a different story. As a government-owned newspaper, the Daily News is generally exempted from government harassment in Zanzibar. But there have been exceptions. Although we are not a very critical newspaper, two months ago, the police came and started questioning us about two articles we published, saying the articles endangered state security. The editor was then arrested and questioned for several hours. We were reporting on the vote registration process, which makes sure that people are unable to register twice for the election. We were reporting that efforts might be made to sabotage the elections, he says.

Certain press laws still in existence in Tanzania do not help freedom of the media on the island. The Newspaper Act of 1976 gives a lot of power to the Minister of Information, who has the capacity to revoke newspaper licences. Therefore, when the Ministry is not happy with what a newspaper publishes, they can tell the newspaper that if it doesnt stop, they are going to close the shop, says Mwambene.

Mwambene feels a real problem lies in the fact that opposition views are not heard in Zanzibar. This is particularly important during elections, which are scheduled to take place on 31 October.

The opposition does not have the access to the media that the government has. Newspapers cover opposition parties, but only in a very bad light, they do not objectively focus on the policies they want to implement. The angles they choose for their articles are always particularly negative, he says.

In 2003, Dira newspaper, a publication associated with the opposition, and at the time, the countrys only private newspaper, was closed by the government, allegedly for violating professional ethics and fomenting hatred between the government and its people. Dira was not among the private newspapers granted licenses this spring, nor is any of its former staff affiliated with the new batch of publications.

Recent publications to appear on newsstands are “Zanzibar Wiki Hii”, “Marhaba”, “ZIFF” and “Fahari Zanzibar”. It remains to be seen whether these private newspapers will adopt an independent position. Mwambene is doubtful. These publications may be owned by private individuals, but they are not independent if you look at the content. For example, although Zanzibar Wiki Hii is private, it is not really independent. It doesnt write critical articles about the government.

The Minister of State disagrees. Private media is fulfilling its role, as is the government media. It is not the same role, but one complements the other.

To Shoo, polarisation of the media is a key impediment to advancements in press freedom on the island. It is very unfortunate that freedom is not seen in light of being critical of the government and opposition alike, but in terms of opposing either the government or the opposition, he says.

It is too early to tell whether over time, Zanzibars fledgling private media will be given the space to operate independently, and if so, how the media will choose to define itself in this space. Just as opinions remain divided about the current press freedom situation in Zanzibar, so too are opinions divided about future prospects for press freedom.

Since there is no middle of the road position, I do not see how one can hope to have a free and fair non-partisan press in Zanzibar, says Shoo.

Mwambene is more optimistic. I feel there are good prospects. There are currently major talks taking place about a new media policy. And the Freedom of Information Act that will be implemented shortly also addresses a number of key issues that were problematic before. New radios and television were recently launched. Democracy is growing on the island. I think politics is heading in the right direction.

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