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Tanzania’s Media Services Act: A Manifestation of the Man With the Hammer Syndrome?

The law shows the misallocation of power and limits individual freedoms, such as freedom of expression, which is the key ingredient to an accountable government.

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Social control is how societies regulate and maintain social order, enforce norms and values, and promote conformity to group expectations. 

It involves using various techniques and strategies to influence the behaviour of individuals and groups within a society to conform to the standards and expectations of the larger community. 

One of the most common forms of social control is law, a system of rules and regulations enforced by a governing authority to regulate human behaviour within a society. 

Law is a powerful mechanism of social control because it provides clear guidelines for acceptable behaviour and imposes consequences for those who violate these guidelines.

However, the excessive use of the law to gain social control can exhibit the ‘man with the hammer syndrome,’ the tendency to rely excessively on a single tool or method to solve problems, even when it may not be the most effective solution. 

It can be harmful in personal and professional contexts, as it may lead to ineffective approaches that do not consider individual needs. 

The term is used metaphorically to describe situations where someone cannot see beyond a particular tool or approach. 

The law of the hammer

It is also known as the law of the hammer, which is a form of abuse that involves employing known methods that do not fit the task at hand. A man with a hammer sees every problem as a nail.

In enforcing any law, it has costs, including limiting individual freedoms and having economic costs on the government or the victim. 

This is why economists like Gary Becker insist on an efficient way to deal with a crime without limiting individual freedoms or imposing costs on the state.

READ MORE: ‘Licensing Requirements Cause Self-censorship Among Media Practitioners’

It was after the rational observation of the Italian philosopher Cesare Beccaria that capital punishment was not an effective way to deter crimes

This idea has profoundly impacted the criminal justice system, leading to the abolition of the death penalty in many countries around the world.

Other laws that stopped being observed in some counties are vagrancy laws, the prohibition of alcohol, blasphemy laws, sodomy laws, witchcraft laws, and miscegenation laws, just to mention a few.

The Media Services Act of 2016 of Tanzania shows the misallocation of power and limits individual freedoms such as freedom of expression, which is the key ingredient to an accountable government.

Media and human rights stakeholders expressed dissatisfaction with the law, which contained provisions that undermined existing freedom, and filed a constitutional case at the East African Court of Justice (EACJ). 

In 2019, the EACJ found that 16 of the 18 clauses complained of violating the Treaty Establishing the East African Community and ordered the Tanzanian government to take corrective measures.

After a tireless discussion with the state actors, the Coalition on the Right to Information (CoRI) proposed about 35 changes desired in the Media Services Act of 2016 to increase media freedoms and individual freedoms. 

However, the amendment Bill that the Attorney General of the Government submitted to the parliament in 2023 has proposed changes to eight sections, leaving critical sections such as the ones that criminalise defamation.

Criminalising defamation

Defamation has been a criminal offence in many countries for centuries, with penalties including imprisonment and fines. 

However, there has been a growing movement to decriminalise defamation in recent years, as it suppresses legitimate criticism and dissent. 

The trend towards decriminalisation of defamation began in the 1990s and has since gained momentum. 

Many countries have reformed their laws to decriminalise defamation or reduce the severity of the penalties completely.

READ MORE: Journalists Reflect on the State of Media in Tanzania

One of the key arguments for decriminalising defamation is that it restricts freedom of expression, a fundamental human right. 

Criminalising speech can lead to self-censorship and limit public debate, harming democracy. Knowing its impact on democracy, and the economy, stakeholders call for decriminalizing it. 

Here, the state should not exhibit the man with the hammer syndrome as the mistakes that can arise from defamation can be solved by the councils as it is just a professional mistake.

Criminalising defamation leads to a chilling effect on speech, as individuals may become reluctant to express their opinions for fear of prosecution. 

This can stifle creativity, innovation, and entrepreneurship, which are essential for economic growth and development.

The criminalisation of defamation can lead to a rise in litigation costs, which can be particularly burdensome for small and medium-sized enterprises. 

The threat of costly lawsuits may discourage businesses from engaging in legitimate criticism, undermining competition and innovation.

Limiting freedom of expression, on the other hand, harm economic growth. Freedom of expression allows individuals to share and exchange information and ideas, which can create new businesses, products, and services. 

READ MORE: Why Civic Space in Tanzania Requires Some Panel-beating

Innovations are stifled, and economic growth is hindered when individuals are not free to express their ideas.

In addition, limiting freedom of expression can lead to a decline in foreign investment. Investors are attracted to countries with a strong rule of law and robust protection of freedom of expression. 

Restrictions on free speech can signal to potential investors that a country is not conducive to doing business.

The ‘man with the hammer syndrome’ reminds us of the importance of being open-minded and adaptable in our problem-solving approaches. 

Sometimes the best solution is not the most obvious or familiar one, and it’s essential to be willing to explore different options to find the most effective solution. 

As the Media Services Act is in question, self-regulation can be among the alternative solution.

Francis Nyonzo is an economist interested in social justice and digital rights. He is available at These are the writer’s own opinions and do not necessarily reflect the viewpoints of The Chanzo Initiative. Do you want to publish in this space? Contact our editors at for further clarification.

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