Viral nationalisms: media communication, state power and nation-building in Coronavirus-era Tanzania

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AuthorRebekah Ciribassi is a PhD candidate in Anthropology, with a minor concentration in Science and Technology Studies, at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York. She can be contacted at rmc334@cornell.edu.

Fieldsite: I have been conducting full-time dissertation research in the United Republic of Tanzania since March of 2018, splitting time between the city of Mwanza, the semi-autonomous archipelago of Zanzibar, and the cultural and business capital of Dar es Salaam. My ethnographic research considers the socio-political shifts embedded in the emergence of sickle cell disease care in 21st century Tanzania. I was due to finish researching and return to the United States to write my dissertation in June 2020. As the virus began to take hold here beginning in mid-March, I halted in-person research to protect the health workers and vulnerable, chronically ill Tanzanians that I had been working with. Less than a month later, all flights out of Tanzania have been suspended indefinitely, and I now find myself observing the pandemic from this liminal position of being stuck in “the field,” somewhere between research and writing.

Repetition on a theme?

In September 2019, the World Health Organization publicly reprimanded Tanzanian leaders for failing to openly share information regarding the possible outbreak of in-country Ebola virus infections. At the time, both the DRC and Uganda were battling a spike in cases that had already killed over 2,000 people. Rumors were spinning that a Tanzanian had traveled to Uganda, returned to Mwanza (in the Northwest of Tanzania, across Lake Victoria from Kampala), showed symptoms of Ebola, tested positive, and later died in-country. The rumor mill also carried stories of a few other cases hidden away in quarantine. The government denied the possible cases, refused to comment on specifics, and did not share any medical files with the WHO. What followed was a media storm, with Tanzania getting all the wrong kinds of international attention. The government was publicly condemned for the so-called “cover-up” of information during such a pressing global health crisis. Meanwhile, my Tanzanian friends, colleagues, and neighbors were waiting with bated breath for Ebola to start making its path across the country. Some were convinced that the government was hiding the realities of an already unstoppable outbreak. No one seemed to fully believe the government narrative that there was no Ebola here at all. Everyone, both within the country and outside, seemed to be in agreement that the government’s story could not be trusted.

Thankfully, the 2019 East African outbreak of Ebola never did expand into Tanzania. Either that one rumored case in Mwanza really wasn’t due to Ebola, or it was kept contained enough to prevent the spread. But regardless of whether or not the government was actually covering up sensitive public health information for the benefit of the economy, the contours of public discussion around the possibility of an outbreak were molded and polarized around the specter of disbelief. These recent-past accusations of a government cover-up still carry resonance, especially in the face of this new global health emergency. And it raises some important questions: (1) Why wasn’t the government readily forthcoming with public health information? (2) Why were people—both in Tanzania and abroad—so quick to disbelieve the government story at the time? And (3) how are people getting information if they feel they cannot trust the government? All of these questions increasingly matter in the context of the Coronavirus pandemic; the circulation of information about COVID-19 in Tanzania is shaped by a wider history of politicized access to information.

The historical significance of information sharing in Tanzania

Mwananchi (“Citizen”) Newspaper is a privately-run, Swahili language newspaper established in 2000. This stand in Mikocheni, Dar es Salaam sells an assortment of mostly Swahili-language newspapers. Photo by author.

After British colonization ended in Tanzania, First President Julius Nyerere relied on news-media as a tool of the newly independent government. From the 1960s through the 1980s across Africa, developmentalist strategies of governance provided new infrastructure and social services by centralizing power under an unencumbered, relatively unrestricted state. Total state control of media communications was seen as important for building political loyalty and popular support for the ideological underpinnings of this ambitious nationalist project. [1]

In the 1980s, economic crisis, structural adjustment policies, and the liberalization of the economy led to the increasing use of private media to criticize the government. And at the dawn of multiparty democracy in Tanzania in the early 1990s, the laws that governed state-run media were also “democratized.” Media was expected to be given similar freedoms to those allowed in liberal donor states. Under these new neo-liberal conditions, private news-media (of varying journalistic and ethical standards) proliferated in Tanzania. The result was often a somewhat antagonistic relationship between the ruling party, Chama Cha Mapinduzi (CCM), with its own state-run news platforms and private, corporate-run news-media. But the state had little official policy recourse to reign in private journalists or any critical public discourse against the Tanzanian government. [2] [3]

This changed over the past five years, as Tanzania has seen a dramatic shift in its policies toward media and information sharing. In 2015 and 2016, the Parliament passed a series of new laws: the Statistics Act, the Cybercrime Act, the Access to Information Act, and the Media Services Act. Each law concerned some aspect of the control and regulation of private media, including a new rule that all statistics have to be approved by the state, and one that threatened punishments of jail time for publishing anything deemed false or inflammatory by the government. The purview of these laws includes both print media and online publications, causing apprehension about the implications for even private, informal access to media that might be critical of the government.

In 2015, John Magufuli was elected president after a populist campaign promising new social service programming, infrastructure, and a zero-tolerance approach to corruption. But the Magufuli administration has been notorious for limiting the freedom of the press, and the freedom of information more generally. He barred the live broadcasting of Parliament sessions, which effectively prevented opposition party members from being heard by the public. Journalists have been detained, arrested, and criminalized over their reporting since 2017. But there has also been increasing restriction on the more informal sharing of information; the 2018 Electronic and Postal Communications (Online Content) regulations granted sweeping powers to the government to the Tanzania Communications Regulatory Authority (TCRA) to police social media platforms, blogs, and online forums.

The new landscape of media in Tanzania seems to echo Nyerere’s post-independence era of developmentalist leadership. Under Magufuli, we see a very familiar ideological and isolationist rhetoric, with a strong emphasis on the centralized provision of new social provisions and public infrastructure. And, like Nyerere, Magufuli expects uncompromising political support and a unification under a strong central government. For both the independence-era government and the post-neoliberal government, a tight control on the public circulation of information is important for (1) maintaining national sovereignty against the threat of external and neo-colonial influence and (2) expediting social and political reforms by consolidating public support.

However, unlike Nyerere’s time, the age of the internet allows for a field of information sharing that is almost impossible to completely control. The social media news sharing site, JamiiForums, has offered an outlet for freely sharing user-generated news updates since its founding in 2006. Mange Kimambi, a Tanzanian socialite living in Los Angeles, has become a vocal advocate for democratic reform—and against the Magufuli administration—on Instagram. @Kigogo2014 on Twitter is an anonymously-run account that is known for sharing news that is in direct contradiction to the information circulated by the state’s own media. These social media sources for information offer a persistent counterweight to Magufuli-era censorship. Crucially, these voices are not necessarily primarily followed for their journalistic integrity, transparency, or commitment to unbiased truth. Rather, they serve to reconfirm people’s doubts over the government’s presentation of the facts, and offer resistance against the increasing political and economic enclosure of the information commons.

The government’s public response to the pandemic

Screenshot from “Hotuba ‘nzito’ ya Rais Magufuli kwa Watanzania / Corona” the youtube video of President Magufuli’s speech about the virus on March 22nd.

The first official speech that the president gave on the virus in Tanzania was on March 22nd, 2020, five days after the first case was reported, and it was mostly circulated as a YouTube video over social media. The President stood alone behind a monogramed podium, wearing a simple button-up shirt with no jacket or tie, flanked on either side with the Tanzanian and East African Community flags. He began with reassuring messages, confirming the current cases but also describing the measures already taken by the government to prevent further spread, including preparing testing equipment and quarantine areas for people coming into Tanzania through international airports. He reiterated the usual safety practices on handwashing, face-touching, and social distancing. He encouraged Tanzanians to avoid fear, reassuring the nation that the measures would be enough to prevent a catastrophic spread. But his last message was the most characteristic of his leadership. “Tuendelee kuchapa kazi. Tuchape kazi kwa bidii ili tuijenge nchi yetu. Ugonjwa usiwe sababu ya…kuacha kuchapa kazi!” (“Let’s continue to work hard. Let’s work really hard so that we can build our country. The disease should not be a reason to stop working hard!”). With echoes of his 2015 election campaign slogan— “Hapa kazi tu!” (“Here it’s only work!”) —Magufuli urged Tanzanians to keep working, in spite of the pandemic, for the good of the Tanzanian nation. Here, then, quarantine messaging from the central government serves the double function of encouraging good public health practices, but also shoring up ideological support for his particular brand of Tanzanian nationalism.

The President, the Minister of Health, a select few other ruling party representatives continually make appearances to make concise, Corona-related announcements for state-run television channels and newspapers. Clips and screenshots of their appearances circulate on various online social media platforms. Tanzanians tend to get access to these announcements via evening news broadcasts on television screens in their homes, or through their smartphones for the middle and upper class. The announcements are limited; there are no descriptions of testing capacities, or even the numbers of tests that have been run. In response, many have accused the government of secrecy, or at least lacking in full transparency, insinuating that they must be hiding or falsifying cases to deflate the numbers.

Meanwhile, there has been low tolerance for alternative messaging. Back on March 20th, 2020, there was a stir on social media with the rumor that a Tanzanian couple had been arrested in Dar es Salaam for the official offence of “raising discontent for unlawful purposes.” According to the official description of the offence circulated at their recent trial, the two had been in a daladala and said loudly enough for other passengers to hear: “Ugonjwa wa korona serikali inadanganya hakuna ugonjwa wowote na imefunga mashule kwa kuwa haina pesa na ada za kusomesha watoto bure…” (“The government is lying about the Corona illness, there isn’t any illness at all and it [the government] closed the schools because it doesn’t have any money to educate students for free”). In general, people seemed to understand that the statement itself was wrong, and that it had the dangerous potential kupotosha jamii—to mislead the community—about the reality of the Coronavirus. But the arrest of the couple also sent an important message, whether or not it was intended: that publicly speaking up about the virus, especially about the government’s response to the virus, could have grave consequences. It was taken as a lesson for people to be careful about speaking publicly.

In the weeks since, media organizations have been fined and otherwise punished, the Mwananchi newspaper had its online license suspended, and a journalist was suspended for six months, all for reporting on COVID-19. In response, Amnesty International posted an article calling for an end to the “crackdown on journalists reporting on COVID-19.”

During Coronavirus, as in the case of the Ebola outbreak in 2019, it is important to trace the ways in which the flow of information is directed under and through post-colonial state power, and how the circulation information forms a central piece of the culture of governance in a particular historical moment. This is a moment of transition for the culture of governance of Tanzania; under Magufuli’s administration, there has been a departure away from the neoliberal models back toward a sort of developmentalist style of political organization. Information of any kind, then, has increasingly become a conduit and a symbol for the new relationship between this central government, outside influence, and Tanzanian citizens.

Alternative media on the virus

In spite of the above, it would not be correct to characterize the government’s concerns about alternative media as totally unfounded. They have warned that citizens should be careful of people trying to profit off of the uncertainty, or that others might give dangerous, potofu (backwards, wrong, or misleading) advice. And indeed, over the past few weeks I have seen a slew of misguided advice, remedies, advertisements, doctored or taken-out-of-context photographs, and pseudo-science making their way around WhatsApp and other social media.

In the sort of overwhelming information swamp of social media, then, it is hard to find accurate information. For many Tanzanians, the issue of language compounds this. Most Tanzanians speak Swahili along with another, more local language. Public primary education is conducted in Swahili, and Tanzanians speak in Swahili in major cities when interacting across ethnic groups. Although English is technically a de facto national language alongside Swahili, the majority of Tanzanians are not fluent. A lot of the reliable, medically sound recommendations about social distancing, “flattening the curve,” wearing masks, and otherwise protecting ourselves are made into English-language graphics, first created in the context of the American and European outbreaks. Good linguistic and cultural translations of this content that can circulate on social media are still scarce.

Because there are few accessible, trustworthy, formal, and locally-meaningful networks of information, people tend to navigate by relying on their informal networks already in place. Things spread by word of mouth, messages, and phone calls as people try to fact-check and spread awareness about things they have seen online. Taken together, the alternative forms of media (some might call these “small media”) that circulate beyond and in the margins of state-controlled reporting—social media posts, text messages, phone calls and word-of-mouth—simultaneously shape the experience of Coronavirus itself, but also the contours of national and other community identities.

Circulations

Last week I had to attend a funeral with my roommate and her family in a village about 12 hours from Dar es Salaam, in the Kilimanjaro region. Two days after our arrival, we got a call from my roommate’s brother back in Dar es Salaam. There were rumors and grainy cell phone footage all over WhatsApp that supposedly showed someone falling down dead in Kariakoo, the main market in downtown Dar. Meanwhile, the Minister of Health, Ummy Mwalimu, had announced over 20 new cases in just a day: a new record for the country. Things seemed to be getting bad. We should try to come back as soon as possible, he suggested, just to be safe. The next day he was more insistent. Rumors were flying fast in Dar es Salaam that the government was planning to close the borders around Dar es Salaam within days in order to contain the spread of the virus, meaning we could get stuck in Kilimanjaro. I called another friend of mine who was also traveling outside of Dar es Salaam. She had heard the same rumors and had traced them back to @Kigogo2014 on Twitter. He had lobbed a mocking tweet suggesting the president was planning to announce a lockdown order for Dar es Salaam “between today and Sunday,” and that everyone should start preparing to stay inside. From the comments, I saw people speculating that it could really be true, that Kigogo could have good inside information, but that the tense rivalry between Kigogo and the government would mean they couldn’t possibly prove him right by announcing a lockdown after he beat them to the punch. Refusing to take any chances, we left the day after the funeral ended and stocked up on groceries at the roadside markets on the way back to Dar es Salaam. We were ready for the possible lockdown by the time we got home, but the government only announced another three days of national prayer to ask God to protect us against COVID-19.

In just this one example, we can see the multimodal ways that information moves quickly around Tanzania. Someone may or may not have died in Kariakoo, and it may or may not have been from Corona. But the pervasive presence of smart phones in Dar es Salaam meant that the moment was captured and probably sent out and re-shared to millions across the country via heavily trafficked WhatsApp groups almost immediately. It fed on the anxieties that were already high from Ummy Mwalimu’s announcement that day on state-run media about the spike in cases, and made people even more suspicious that the official numbers were sanitized. Here, informal, democratized social media platforms dovetailed with formal, state-sanctioned mechanisms for reporting to produce new, hybrid public narratives. My friend’s brother called us to spread the combined message beyond the reach of 4G data or television networks. The public political figure Kigogo used Twitter to try to goad the government into action, but instead may have provoked them into inaction instead because of their antagonistic relationship. In a 24-hour period, rumors and visual media, official statistics and Tweet-activism all melded into one confusing message about whether or not we needed to rush back to Dar. “Truth” or “awareness” weren’t so much at stake, but rather the politics of belief and slippage of information across different kinds of official and unofficial, formal and informal, media.

Conclusions 

As anthropologists know well, access to information during a pandemic doesn’t happen in a political or historical vacuum. In Tanzania, the circulation of information is shaped by a particular historical arc of post-colonial nationalism from the 1960s to the present. In times of crisis, external influence from international bodies like the WHO, or internal voices from private media, are no less threatening to the  sovereignty of the central state and its projects of nation-building. Citizens may resist the consolidation of state power through their use of various kinds of private media, but also engage in negotiations between state and non-state media to parse some reasonable course of action as both global and national citizens. These are not the choices of individual, isolated actors, but rather the outcomes of intractably connected networks of people, technologies, and an atmosphere of uncertainty created by the unique circumstances of the pandemic.

One of the many handwash bucket stations that have become commonplace at the entrances of shops and bus stations around Dar es Salaam since the outbreak. Photo taken by author.

REFERENCES:

[1] Brennan, James (2015). The Cold War battle over global news in East Africa: decolonization, the free flow of information, and the media business, 1960-1980. Journal of Global History 10, pp. 333-356.

[2] Rioba, Ayub (2012). Media Accountability in Tanzania’s Multiparty Democracy. [Academic Dissertation]. University of Tampere.

[3] Grosswiler, Paul. (1997). Changing Perceptions of Press Freedom in Tanzania. In Press Freedom and Communication in Africa. Festus Eribo & William Jong-Ebot, Eds. Trenton, NJ and Asmara, Eritrea: Africa World Press, Inc. Pp. 101-119.

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