Tanzania's president warns newspapers over dissent

DAR ES SALAAM (Reuters) - Tanzanian President John Magufuli said on Friday the “days were numbered” for newspapers deemed to incite dissent, comments that will add to opposition concern that his government is further narrowing the space for public criticism.

Tanzania's President John Magufuli leaves after inspecting a guard of honour during his official visit to Nairobi, Kenya October 31, 2016. REUTERS/Thomas Mukoya

Magufuli, nicknamed “the bulldozer” for pushing through his policies, has won some praise from Western donors for an anti-corruption drive and cutting wasteful public spending, but opponents accuse him of increasingly undermining democracy by curbing dissent and stifling free speech.

The government declared opposition protest illegal last year. Some privately-owned newspapers have published articles criticizing Magufuli’s handling of the economy and some governance issues.

“We will not allow Tanzania to be a dumpyard for inciting (newspaper) content. This will not happen under my administration,” Magufuli told a rally in the northwestern town of Shinyanga.

He accused two newspapers, which he did not name, of seeking to cause trouble. “Whenever you read them, they are full of inciting content ... their days are numbered,” he said.

Government officials said he was likely referring to one English daily and another Swahili daily owned by a privately-owned media organization. Both newspapers have published some critical articles on the government’s policies.

The president in November signed into law a bill that journalists said was aimed at muzzling freedom of the press.

The Media Services Act of 2016 gives officials powers to shut down media organizations that violate their licenses by confiscating printing machines.

Tanzania last month charged the co-founder of a website where people can post comments about officials they believe are corrupt.

Maxence Melo Mubyazi, 40, managing director and co-founder of jamiiforums website, was charged with multiple counts of obstructing justice and running an unregistered website.

The rights group, the Committee to Protect Journalists, said this week Tanzania should investigate corruption allegations instead of “pressurizing a website to violate its users’ trust and privacy”.

The East African country enacted a tough cyber crimes law in 2015 under which several people have been prosecuted for violations including insulting the president, punishable by up to three years in jail.

Rights activists have criticized the law and the United States canceled nearly $500 million of funding for the country to express its disapproval.

Reporting by Fumbuka Ng’wanakilala; Editing by Janet Lawrence