The Tanzanian government has banned the Nairobi newspaper, The EastAfrican, from newsstands. Although the publicized reason for the ban is that the newspaper was being distributed within Tanzania without proper legal registration as required by a 1976 law, several individuals and advocacy groups note that the call to stop distribution came after a particularly “disrespectful” cartoon by Godfrey Mwampembwa (Gado) ran in the publication.
Coincidence? Rights advocates say not. The official explanation becomes suspect when considering the fact that the paper has been running for 20 years without issue. Further, before the official issued the letter declaring the publication’s “illegal” distribution, the Director of Information Services, Assah Mwambene — who also acts as a spokesperson for the current government — openly criticized the cartoon, which criticizes Tanzanian President Jakaya Kikwete. Mwambene declared the cartoon was in bad taste and disrespectful to both the president and the Tanzanian government, and he also accused the paper of “having a negative agenda against Tanzania” — an agenda that openly and vocally criticizes corruption, cronyism, and incompetence in the Tanzanian government.
National Media Group (NMG) chairman and owner of The EastAfrican, Wilfred Kiboro, commented that he was surprised that the newspaper had only recently come under governmental scrutiny when it had been running publicly in the country for more than 20 years. In a public statement he noted, “Surely they can’t just wake up now and declare us illegal. If it were an issue of regularising files, that would not require such a draconian measure of banning a newspaper.”
It turns out that this is not the first time that the Tanzanian government has used the 1976 Newspaper Registration Act to shut down newspapers and stifle freedom of expression. Freedom House notes that although the country’s constitution “provides for freedom of speech, at least 17 laws encourage self-censorship and limit the ability of the media to function effectively.” Furthermore as Kiboro points out:
Last year, the same government shut down our other publication — Mwananchi — for two weeks for reasons that have never been made clear… We can only assume that this decision is in the same vein. Such unfair and undemocratic actions are what undermines our governments’ claims to being democratic, believing in press freedom and pro-business.
Although Gado hasn’t commented on the events, Linus Gitahi, CEO of NMG aptly points out the rising and alarming trend that the world and the cartoonist community are seeing in terms of how people’s freedom of speech and expression are being violated:
It’s unacceptable that a simple cartoon can create such a reaction… When other countries like France are standing with their journalists, shutting down is an extreme measure that we urge the government to reconsider.
Whether The EastAfrican remains banned in Tanzania is at the discretion of the government, and the paper will not return to circulation until “legal issues are settled.” Protest over the move has been vocal both within the country and internationally — the European Union, Canada, Norway and Switzerland all issued statements of support for the paper and freedom expression in Tanzania. Hopefully, the ban will be short-lived.
Contributing Editor Caitlin McCabe is an independent comics scholar who loves a good pre-code horror comic and the opportunity to spread her knowledge of the industry to those looking for a great story!