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Journalists Call for Resumption of Mwinyi’s Press Conferences After Hiatus: ‘It Made People Feel They’re Truly Part of the Government’

The government says the pause is just temporary and President Mwinyi will soon resume his tradition of briefing journalists every month-end.

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Zanzibar. Marking 100 days of his administration, Zanzibar president Hussein Mwinyi held a meeting with journalists and editors from the semi-autonomous archipelago and mainland on February 9, 2021, to brief them on crucial milestones his eight-phase government accomplished during the time.

“I’m very grateful to all of you for the great work you’ve been doing throughout these 100 days,” Mr Mwinyi, a medical doctor, said. “Sincerely, I’m comforted that all [government’s] activities, from day one till today, we mark 100 days, have been sufficiently covered and reach our people.”

President Mwinyi, 57, was sincere. From there, he started monthly meetings with journalists at the State House to brief them on several government undertakings, an unprecedented development in the history of post-Revolution Zanzibar, rightly earning him praises and plaudits. 

Breaking with tradition, journalists were free to raise issues and ask tough questions they thought warranted responses from the president. Mr Mwinyi would spend as much time as he could responding to each of them calmly, with humility, and with distinguished reasonableness.

Open governance

But in a surprising turn of events, that arrangement abruptly ended, leaving journalists and citizens perplexed as to what might have happened to force the government, and the State House in particular, to cancel an arrangement they think contributed hugely to enshrining press freedom in Zanzibar and bridging the gap between the government and citizens.

READ MORE: Here Is How President Mwinyi Can Build A New Zanzibar

“It demonstrated the government’s willingness to embrace the values of open and accountable governance,” explains Salum Issa Vuai, a journalist with the government-owned Zanzibar Leo newspaper who covered the meetings, which occurred for the last time on May 30, 2023. 

“The government should consider bringing back the arrangement because it made people feel they’re truly part of the government,” he added.

Mr Vuai explained that local government officials abuse their power and offices several times and fail to serve the people as they should. He added: “The monthly meeting served as a platform where journalists would bring to the president’s attention information that he’d otherwise miss or misinformed by his assistants.”

The director of presidential communications at the Zanzibar State House, Charles Hillary, told The Chanzo that the arrangement had not been “cancelled,” adding that it had only been “temporarily paused” but would resume soon. However, he did not exactly say when.

Corruption allegations

However, the abrupt suspension of the arrangement coincided with the allegations of corruption and mismanagement of public funds that opposition parties and others have consistently levelled against the Mwinyi Administration.

READ MORE: Think Tank Outlines Ways Zanzibar Can Strengthen Its Anti-corruption Drive

Opposition ACT-Wazalendo party, a junior partner in the ruling Government of National Unity (GNU) in Zanzibar, has been very vocal in its criticism of Mwinyi’s handling of the archipelago’s economy. It accuses him of enriching himself and his clique through investment decisions his government regularly makes, charges Mwinyi strongly denies.

ACT-Wazalendo deputy chairperson (Zanzibar) Ismail Jussa is probably Mwinyi’s chief critic and believes that the surprising shelving of an arrangement the government launched with much pomposity has something to do with Mwinyi’s attempts to shield himself against accountability.

“[Mwinyi is] overwhelmed and does not have convincing responses backed with evidence to counter serious and institutionalised corrupt practices of his government,” Jussa said in an interview. “I believe these are the reasons behind his silent but conspicuous cancellation of the monthly press conferences.”

“The media was increasingly using the charges we were making to demand explanation from him,” the veteran politician added. “His response was to deny them the platform. But [ACT-Wazalendo] will continue with our mission and execute our duty to hold those in power to account. We believe he will face the music come October 2025 elections. I don’t see him going into a second term.”

READ MORE: Jussa Calls for National Consultative Conference to Rid Tanzania of Constitutional Impasse

Hillary, who also serves as the Zanzibar Government’s Chief Spokesperson, denies these charges, insisting that the government temporarily paused the arrangement and President Mwinyi will soon resume regular meetings with journalists.

Jabir Idrissa, a Zanzibar correspondent with the independent private newspaper MwanaHALISI, regularly attended the president’s meetings with journalists, asking critical questions ranging from politics and governance to economy and corruption.

Idrissa, a respected investigative journalist, says he’s not sure whether or not President Mwinyi has answers to the issues raised, but he knows that meeting journalists regularly at least reduces the gap between him and the people he leads.

“There are so many things that the president doesn’t know which we’d bring to his attention,” Mr Idrissa reasoned. “[Mr Mwinyi] should resume his monthly meeting with journalists. It is the only effective way he can stay informed of the situation on the ground and take necessary measures.”

Fading hope

Others have interpreted the surprising halt of monthly press conferences as a blow to press freedom in Zanzibar and efforts underway to improve it. When the arrangement was launched, many hoped it’d pave the way for further reforms, including the amendment of outdated media laws. That hope now appears to be fading.  

READ MORE: Zanzibar Reiterates Commitment to Come Up With New Media Law

On June 10, 2024, for instance, press freedom actors met in Zanzibar to decry what they consider to be a “procrastination” on the part of authorities in the archipelago to change law and regulations deemed repressive to journalists and their media, particularly the Registration of News Agents, Newspapers and Books Act, 1988, and the Zanzibar Broadcasting Commission Act, 1997.

Zaina Abdallah Mzee, a programme officer with the Tanzania Media Women Association – Zanzibar (TAMWA-Z), said in an interview with The Chanzo that suspension of their monthly press conferences with the president kills all existed hopes that reforms in the legal frameworks will occur.

“We’d have used those meetings to press President Mwinyi, who has promised to undertake such reforms, to fulfil his promise,” Mzee said. “It doesn’t mean that now we cannot do that, we definitely can but the process will be a bit long and complicated for we no longer have direct access to the president.”

Najjat Omar wrote this story from Zanzibar. Lukelo Francis edited it from Dar es Salaam.

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