The East African Court of Justice (EACJ) has handed down an important decision for freedom of expression in general, and press freedom in particular, in Tanzania.
This case was brought following a ministerial order against a Tanzanian newspaper, banning it from publishing for three years. The newspaper, Mseto, challenged the order on the basis that it interfered with press freedom, restricted their right to freedom of expression, and was therefore unlawful under international law.
In Mseto’s legal challenge, the newspaper also argued that the minister had failed to provide any reasons for the order.
The ministerial order to shut down the newspaper followed almost immediately after Mseto newspaper published an article about corruption during the Tanzanian presidential election. The article, published in August 2016, was critical of the president and a deputy minister. It was an important contribution to public debate about corruption and unlawful practices concerning the holder of the highest office in the land, and a member of his cabinet. Mseto had previously published other articles documenting corruption in high office, and had been threatened by the government in the past.
The consequences of the shutdown order were devastating, not just for the owners, employees, and readership of the newspaper, but also for press freedom in Tanzania generally. The order was consistent with the practice of Tanzanian ministers banning or suspending newspapers which criticise the government.
The Court, agreeing with Mseto’s submissions, directed that the ministerial order be annulled and that Mseto be allowed resume publishing. The Court was critical of the arbitrary and ‘whimsical’ way in which the order was issued, finding that the state had acted in a manner contrary to the principles of accountability and transparency. Specifically, it found that the order contravened the rule of law and was in violation of the right to freedom of expression. It is expected that Tanzania will now comply with this decision.
The case was taken to the Court by Tanzanian lawyer Fulgence Massawe from Legal and Human Rights Centre, with the support of Media Legal Defence Initiative (MLDI). Mr Massawe welcomed the Court’s decision as “a landmark decision in our jurisdiction. We have witnessed the systematic attack of the freedom of expression and press freedom in Tanzania. This decision has sent the right message to the Tanzanian government.”
According to MLDI’s Legal Director Pádraig Hughes, the decision “represents an important positive step in the push back against interference with press freedom by governments. It is essential that courts remain vigilant to any attempts at interfering with efforts to expose corruption, dishonesty and incompetence through investigative journalism.”
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