Ohio State University

Tanzanian Autocracy Begins with Media Restrictions by Ethan Gruber @ The Ohio State University

Nicknamed “The Bulldozer,” John Magufuli made promises throughout his campaign to attack the corruption that had plagued the public and private sectors of Tanzania for decades. Yet, only three years into his presidency, Magufuli has revealed his disregard for civil liberties as well as his distaste for the opposition. A man who entered the office with the widespread support of his people now stands where many executives leading democratically eroding nations have once stood. What started as a pledge to attack corruption has ended in democratic violations centered primarily around silencing the press.

Magufuli has not attempted to hide his opinion about the sanctity of the media. In public remarks, he went as far as to say that there were limits to press freedoms. This statement sounds ambiguous but Magufuli made himself perfectly clear when he instructed his new Minister of Information to punish organizations that publish material designed to incite unrest. This jargon of prioritizing security and stability over civil liberties is symptomatic of a leader of a hybrid democracy.

Yet Magufuli’s forthright manner in which he suspends civil liberties is somewhat of a surprise. Scott Gehlbach writes in “Reflections on Putin and the Media” of how Vladimir Putin orchestrates a media structure that understands that it can be brought under government control at any time but still maintains enough autonomy to broadcast sufficient opposition material so as to appear as if the media is independent of the government. In Tanzania, Magufuli does not care for this charade.

In 2016 alone Tanzania committed several media restricting actions. According to Freedom House, Magufuli required government obtained media accreditation, criminally charged individuals for criticizing the president, and banned two newspaper for covering stories about political corruption and tensions. These actions do not resemble the actions of a leader committed to preserving democracy. Rather, they imitate the actions of a leader seeking to eliminate opposition and consolidate authority.

Magufuli’s attempt to silence criticism mirrors the same efforts taken by Ecuadorian president Rafael Correa as detailed in Nancy Bermeo’s “On Democratic Backsliding.” Here, Correa only allowed media to operate under the “collective interest” as well as banning media if it made an attempt at “destroying the prestige of a natural or juridical person or reducing their public credibility.” These actions are significant because Correa’s predecessors were all effectively undone by media coverage and criticism. By eliminating the source of these criticisms, Correa could effectively hold onto power in the guise of protecting the nation.

Rafael Correa demonstrates that the abuses against the media taken by John Magufuli are unoriginal. By silencing the voice of the opposition, Magufuli maintains a stronghold on his office while preventing the electorate from learning any information of corruption in his government. This standard has already been established by Daniel Hill Jr. and Yonatan Lupu in their article “Restrictions on the news media are a bellwether for two disturbing trends.” Hill and Lupu have found that press restrictions prompt less competition among political parties as well as a connection to the weakening of institutions that serve as confines to executive power.

Along with the weakening of institutions, Hill and Lupu also discovered that a diminishment of the media coincides with an increase in human rights violations. In Tanzania, this appears to be true as well. Human Rights Watch has published numerous examples of human rights violations including the shooting of Tundu Lissu. Lissu, the chief whip of the Chadema opposition party, is known for her criticisms of the president. Her shooting comes after multiple arrests for “hate speech.”

Along with the shooting of Tundu Lissu, The East African published an article detailing the kidnapping and murder of Daniel John, another opposition leader from the Chadema party. The murder raised enough concerns that even the United States government noted apprehension for the rise in politically motivated killings in Tanzania.

Magufuli’s restrictions of the press are examples of a democratically elected leader using autocratic methods in order to secure his office. But Magufuli does not even attempt to mask his media limitations. If anything, he almost basks in the fact that he has repressed the role of the media in his country. This is a departure from the traditional hybrid democracy which uses methods such as libel lawsuits or state ownership in order to dismiss opposition speech. Magufuli’s direct attack on the media moves past the hybrid democracy standards and into autocracy.

Given the media restrictions that the Tanzanian government has already instituted, it would not be a stretch to envision even more civil liberties restrictions this time restricting voting rights or independent courts. Magufuli has shown no signs of reigning in his autocratic actions and the suspension of civil liberties and increases in political violence very well may become the new norm for Tanzanian government.


*Photo by Issa Michuzi, “Unnamed” (Flickr) Creative Commons Zero license

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