Mbeya. The prosecution of Sifa Bujune, a gospel singer from Mbeya, and her colleagues in September this year sent shock waves in Tanzania’s creative sector, alarming artists, creators, and freedom of expression activists of the distance authorities are willing to walk in suppressing artistic works deemed ‘inappropriate.’
Authorities charged Bujune – and her colleagues Salome Mwampeta and Hezekiel Millyashi – after they sang about police brutality in their song titled Mnatuona Nyani, which translates to You See Us As Apes in English, alleging that a young man had his teeth uprooted by police officers for no reason.
Police charged the artists with “publishing false information” under the controversial and much-criticised Cybercrime Act of 2015. The case is ongoing at the District Court of Mbeya, with its prospects casting a dark shadow over artistic freedom in Tanzania.
The prosecution of the artists followed earlier incidents of interfering with artists’ works, especially those whose songs have political messages and are critical of the government. They involved banning several songs by dissident rapper Nay Wa Mitego, who also complained that authorities were blocking him from performing the songs.
Famous Bongo Flava artist Nuh Mziwanda told The Chanzo in an interview that there is no artistic freedom in Tanzania, and to avoid getting into trouble with authorities, most people like him are forced to use euphemisms in their lyrics.
“There is no artistic freedom in Tanzania,” the Jike Shupa hitmaker said. “It saddens me that artists must censor themselves so much to avoid trouble. Too much censorship kills creativity, as artists do not get to express their art as they’d love to.”
The Chanzo’s efforts to get comments from the National Art Council (BASATA) Executive Secretary Kedmon Mapana were fruitless, as he was not immediately available through his mobile phone number. Nor was the Permanent Secretary in the Ministry of Arts, Culture and Sports, Gerson Msigwa, available to comment.
Freedom of expression is enshrined in Tanzania’s 1977 Constitution, whose Article 18 guarantees every person the right to freedom of expression and the right to seek, receive, and impart information.
Tanzania is also a signatory to several regional and international treaties that guarantee not only freedom of expression but also artistic freedom.
But despite this being the case, on numerous accounts, artists have found themselves in trouble with regulators when they release artistic works that, from authorities’ perspective, are inappropriate. The risks can range from banning songs and arrests to prosecution in a court of law.
Artists and freedom of expression activists in Tanzania have condemned authorities’ interference with artists’ freedom on numerous occasions. They have a special interest in the arbitrariness and “militarism” that accompany the regulation of the creative sector in Tanzania.
Speaking in the context of the case against Bujune and her colleagues, prominent lawyer in Mbeya Andrew Siwale said police had no basis for arresting and charging the gospel singer as the law enforcement agency showed nowhere that people had complained about the song.
“For police’s actions to have any basis, there must be proof that someone had complained about the song,” Mr Siwale told The Chanzo in an interview. “In this [Bujune’s] case, there was none. This was a pure violation of the artist’s freedom, aimed at intimidating others.”
Concerns over deteriorating artistic freedoms in Tanzania come as President Samia Suluhu Hassan receives praises for implementing several reforms to expand civic space and people’s participation in governance.
Since taking over as leader on March 17, 2021, following the sudden death of her predecessor, John Magufuli, President Samia has implemented key reforms in many areas, including the media, political parties, elections, and the economy.
Guided by her 4Rs philosophy – reconciliation, resilience, reforms, and rebuilding–the Head of State has always emphasised the importance of people being free to share their thoughts, noting that a strong nation is built on diversity of views.
However, stakeholders in the country’s creative sector fear that Samia’s appreciation of freedom of expression is yet to reflect in the artists’ ability to explain the world as they see it, finding themselves to self-censor lest they get in trouble with authorities.
Robert Mwampembwa is a Managing Director of the Cultural Industries Network Tanzania (CINT), a not-for-profit organisation championing the welfare of the country’s creative sector, including addressing legal and policy issues that affect it.
During an interview with The Chanzo, Mr Mwampembwa complained that Tanzania’s authorities have become increasingly obsessed with silencing artists who express alternative viewpoints, condemning the practice as counterproductive.
“Let’s be honest here,” said Mr Mwampembwa, who has been vocal in his opposition to state censorship in Tanzania. “No artist is free in Tanzania. No artist in this country can produce an artistic work that directly or indirectly criticises a certain leader, especially the president, and remain safe.”
He criticised the oft-repeated mantra by government leaders that no freedom is without limit, saying that the statement sounds beautiful only that the ones who create those limits here in Tanzania have no idea of what art constitutes.
“The government should stop using security organs to intimidate artists for their works,” Mr Mwampembwa demanded. “There are many ways it can communicate its disagreement with the artist. Nor should it be allowed just to ban artists’ works. We must ensure our leaders appreciate art and the creativity that accompanies it.”
But where should artists draw the line between creativity and promoting harmful practices in the communities?
This was the question that Tanzanians grappled with for days early this month after authorities banned a song titled Ameyatimba Remix after many complained that the song’s content promoted rape culture.
Abdul Kiongwe is a Mbeya-based underground artist who told The Chanzo that there should be a limit in crafting an artistic work, noting that artists, as privileged members of society, are responsible for not promoting harmful behaviour and practices in communities.
“It is not true that there is no artistic freedom in Tanzania,” Kiongwe observed. “What is lacking is freedom for artists to do as they please, and who wants that? Freedom without regulation is nothing but chaos.”
“We as artists must become mindful of the content we feed our audience,” the artist added. “It should be content that builds, not destroys.”
Modesta Mwambene reports for The Chanzo from Mbeya. She is available at firstname.lastname@example.org.