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Tanzania's curbs on fact-checking spark censorship fears

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Tanzania has adopted controversial ammendant to an existing law, which the government says, will help tackle public misinformation gaps. However, journalists fear it will make it a criminal offense to challenge official data. If signed into law, it would mean that anyone who “distorts” facts by the National Bureau of Statistics could be sentenced to at least a year in prison.

Tanzania's president John Pombe Magufuli in Dar es Salaam, October 30, 2015.
Tanzania's president John Pombe Magufuli in Dar es Salaam, October 30, 2015. REUTERS/Sadi Said

It's going to have a "chilling effect," communications expert Maria Sarungi Tsehai told RFI, after Tanzania voted the amendment to the country's Statistics Act, making it illegal for anyone to publish statistical information which is intended to "invalidate, distort, or discredit official data."

“How do you interpret with the intent to?" Challenges Tsehai. From now on, journalists will "think twice" about quoting the slightest piece of data," she reckons.

For the National Bureau of Statistics, the new amendment is to help Tanzania fill its information gaps.

"We are facing a lot of data gaps," argues Albina Chuwa, the Bureau chief.

"We want to make use of the other statistical information that is being generated from the civil society organizations to follow the standards and the principles, so that information can be used to chip in the gap that we currently have," she told RFI.

According to the government, the amendment to the Statistics Act does not prohibit research at a personal level, but "if this statistical information is to be made public then it has to get a permit from the National Statistics Office," confirms Chuwa.

Bureaucratic hurdles

Yet such bureaucratic measures are unnecessary lawyer and journalist Betty Masanja believes.

"Imagine how long it will take for me to get a permission and imagine as a journalist I need to get something right now and cover it with the tight deadline," she told RFI.

"Time has never been our friend, so these bureaucratic measures will mean we miss the story," she says.

Bureau of Statistics chief Chuwa has urged the media not to be alarmed.

“Journalists are free to publish their information. The issue now is for them to quote the source of that information. The source of the information they’re publishing is very important," she insists.

The problem for Tsehai, is that this source still needs to agree with the official data.

"For example if I can get somebody to talk about what they see in the data, and if that university professor feels the government has made a mistake - that should not be sanctioned with jail and a fine."

Government infallibility in doubt

“The government’s statistics are not infallible," she points out.

Offenders could be sentenced to at least one year in prison and slapped a hefty fine. The changes follow other draconian measures that journalists say are aimed at stifling the press, including the Media Services Act of 2016.

Bureau of Statistics chief Chuwa has dismissed fears that Tanzania is slipping backwards.

"If the statistician general makes mistakes he has to be held accountable for that," she told RFI.

To achieve that Chuwa explains that the statistician general will work with a team of experts including the media, "to sit down and say yes here is where we made errors, and sometimes the statistician general you may resign if that error is so huge.”

The amendment to the Statistics Act was passed on 10 September. In order to be voted into law, it must first be signed by President John Magufuli. If he does sign it, critics say the law will stifle informed policy debate and deprive the public of independent statistics.

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