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Embattled Simalenga Speaks Out As Journalists Declare Coverage Boycott

He says he sees no reason to apologise because he didn’t do anything wrong. “I was just following guidelines,” Simalenga says.

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Mwanza. Bariadi district commissioner Simon Simalenga has defended his decision to kick journalists out of a key district consultative meeting on February 19, which led to criticisms from journalists and press freedom advocates, citing guidelines that prohibited reporters from participating in such meetings.

During an interview with the local radio station Nyanza FM, Mr Simalenga said there had been a distortion of what had happened at the meeting. He said it was not true that he kicked the reporters out but “politely” asked them to leave as meeting guidelines do not permit their presence. 

“I’m very disappointed with the misinterpretations circulated online,” Mr Simalenga said. “Most of these falsehoods are being spread by people who were not even present at the meeting. No journalist was kicked out. It could be that some misinterpreted our request to leave the meeting. It’s just their perceptions, not the reality.”

Mr Simalenga cited the 2007 guidelines governing the conduct of district consultative meetings, which, among other things, stipulate who can attend such a meeting, which does not include journalists. However, the guidelines provide that the chairperson, who is the district commissioner, can invite members not stipulated in the guidelines when he or she deems it necessary.

Mr Simalenga said he did not invite the journalists, citing the “sensitivity” of the issue that was going to be discussed, which is the possibility of dividing the Bariadi constituency into two different constituencies. He said it was not only the journalists who were asked to leave the meeting, noting that other members from political parties were also served with the request.

READ MORE: Bariadi DC Simon Simalenga Criticised After Kicking Journalists Out of Key Meeting

“But I understand why the narrative has been ‘he kicked out the journalists’ instead of ‘he asked the journalists to leave’ as the former sounds more brutish and violent than the latter,” Mr Simalenga said. “These are two different statements that elicit different reactions.”

Coverage boycott

Mr Simalenga’s self-defence comes against the backdrop of heavy criticisms from journalists, their unions and press freedom advocates in Tanzania, who have condemned his behaviour, which they think endangers journalists’ safety and freedom. 

Simiyu Press Club, which fights for journalists’ safety and freedom in the region, issued a strong-worded statement on February 20, 2024, a day after the incident happened, where it condemned the incident in “strongest terms.”

The union went a step further by announcing that its members will boycott all coverage of Mr Simalenga until his seniors from the government assure the journalists that he will no longer treat journalists with disdain, which the union claimed has been the DC’s norm.

“This isn’t the first time he has acted inappropriately,” the club’s secretary, Derick Mtabirwa, told The Chanzo. “We have already filed complaints against him with the regional commissioner on two occasions. [The regional commissioner] instructed [Simalenga] to meet with the journalists to resolve the issues, which he failed to do.”

READ MORE: Study Paints Gloomy Picture for Tanzania’s Journalists

Explaining the practicality of their boycott, Mr Mtabirwa said that the action means that the club’s members will not participate in any activity directly involving Mr Simalenga as the district commissioner.

“If we are invited to cover an event where the district commissioner is also invited, we will not report on his involvement,” Mtabirwa said. “We will cover the event itself but will not mention anything about him. We will not report on any statements made by the district commissioner, and we will not even mention his name.”

“We will cover all other news and developments within the Bariadi district,” Mtabirwa explained, “but we will not report on anything related to the district commissioner until further actions are taken, possibly in the future, to resolve the issue.”

No apology

During his interview with the Nyanza FM, Mr Simalenga recognised a boycott journalists have announced against him, ruling out the possibility of apologising, noting that there’s nothing to apologise for as he was just following the established guidelines.

“I spoke with my seniors within the government who inquired about the issue and I clarified to them and they understood,” he revealed. 

READ MORE: A Free Press Is Vital for Zanzibar’s Development

“As for boycotting me, I’d say that the media outlets these journalists work for operate under specific licensing requirements,” Mr Simalenga added. “I’ll continue with my normal routines and if I see the need to communicate with relevant authorities, I’ll do so.”

Keneth Simbaya, the Executive Director of the Union of Tanzania Press Clubs (UTPC), which was among organisations that condemned Mr Simalenga’s actions, told The Chanzo that the district commissioner needs to speak with journalists and end their differences.

“As UTPC, we have already initiated efforts towards that development,” Mr Simbaya told The Chanzo. “I’ve personally spoken with the district commissioner and I’m planning to speak with the regional commissioner. Only talks can resolve the tension that the February 19 incident created.”

Simbaya said elected and appointed leaders need to appreciate the role of journalists in driving the wheel of development in the country, pointing to the unique link that exists between media and development.

“People need information to contribute to development,” Mr Simbaya theorised. “When people know that the taxes they pay go to build roads, establish clinics, and improve schools, they will contribute more. All this information is provided by journalists.”

Matonyinga Makaro reports for The Chanzo from Mwanza. He’s available at matonyingamakaro@gmail.com

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