The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) has urged Tanzanian President John Magufuli to drop charges against freelance journalist Erick Kabendera and to account for the whereabouts of missing journalist Azory Gwanda.
The letter sent to Magufuli, written by CPJ executive director, Joel Simon, also copies in United Nations representative Modest Mero, the country’s Foreign Minister Palamagamba Kabudi, Information Minister Harrison Mwakyembe and the chief secretary in the presidency, John William Kijazi.
Kabendera was forcefully removed from his home on July 29, 2019. He was eventually charged with economic crimes, the nature of which make him ineligible for bail. According to Simon, the manner of Kabendera’s arrest and detention suggest retaliation on the part of Tanzanian authorities and an attempt to silence dissident voices. Kabendera is known for his critical reporting, which includes revelations of divisions within the ruling party.
Speaking at the Engagement on Intermediary Liability and Data Protection conference two years ago, Kabendera said that Tanzania did not seem to know which direction to take concerning freedom of expression. He said that internet innovations in the country could improve the public’s access to information.
“You have government not teaming up with the private sector or with other people, trying to see how they could use the internet," he explained, saying that the state didn’t seem to want to use the internet as a platform to facilitate discussions with its people. "But on the other hand, you have citizens worried. If I make that comment, if I ask the minister this question, will I be safe or I might end up in prison tomorrow?”
Investigative reporter Azory Gwanda's whereabouts remain unknown after he went missing on November 21, 2017. At the time of his disappearance he was investigating a number of bizarre killings and abductions in the coastal Rufiji region where he lived.
In his letter to the president, Simon says despite the claims made by Foreign Minister Palamagamba Kabudi during a BBC interview that Gwanda “disappeared and died”, there has been no credible accounting for his fate, and no answers to the many questions surrounding his disappearance.
Gwanda’s wife, Anna Pinoni, told police that when she last saw him, he was taken from their home and bundled into a car by four men. Joan Nyanyuki, Amnesty International’s regional director for the region, has called for an independent investigation “to ensure that all those found responsible are held to account in fair trials”.
According to Simon, the cases of Gwanda and Kabendera strike fear in the local media community and can exacerbate a culture of self-censorship. “They are also emblematic of the rapid deterioration of press freedom in Tanzania, which has included the suspension of media outlets on specious allegations, restrictive regulation, and legal harassment of journalists, as CPJ has documented,” Simon said.
In the letter, Simon writes that CPJ would welcome an opportunity to meet Tanzanian authorities to discuss these concerns.
At the Defend Media Freedom Conference in London in June, Tanzanian Foreign Minister Kabinda pledged that government would ensure that journalists are protected against any persecution or impunity.
Simon, however, says these public commitments are hollow if the government does not take immediate action to drop all charges and free Kabendera, and if Gwanda’s case is not thoroughly investigated and the findings made public.
The Embassy of the United States and the British High Commission have condemned the apparent corrosion of due process in relation to Erick Kabendera’s detention.
In a joint statement released on August 9 they remind Tanzania of its obligations to UN Human Rights Conventions such as the International Covenant for Civil and Political Rights. As a signatory to these conventions Tanzania recognises due process as a basic human right.
“We are particularly concerned about a recent case — the irregular handling of the arrest, detention, and indictment of investigative journalist Erick Kabendera,” the statement said, “including the fact that he was denied access to a lawyer in the early stages of his detention, contrary to the Criminal Procedures Act.”
The High Commission of Canada has also added its voice to the calls to defend media freedom.