By Benjamin Rukwengye
The recent arrest and arraignment of journalist Erick Kabendera is the latest in what the International Press Institute has described as the ”unprecedented crisis” in media freedom in Tanzania.
Many local, regional and international watchdog groups have condemned the recent developments and called for Kabendera’s release.
“It is appalling that the Tanzania government allows journalists to be subjected to physical attacks and arbitrary arrests under its watch,” Article 19 said. “This latest arrest is part of a worrying decline of media freedom in Tanzania, where it is increasingly dangerous to be a journalist or to criticise the government.”
The group urged the government of Tanzania to “implement its human rights obligations to protect free speech”.
The international group, Committee to Protect Journalists, has written to President Magufuli and asked his government to drop the charges against Kabendera.
CPJ added that “the manner of his arrest and detention suggests retaliation that seeks to silence his critical reporting, including on divisions within the ruling party”.
Tanzania ranks 118th out of 180 countries in Reporters Without Borders (RSF) World Press Freedom Index this year, 25 positions below its 2018 ranking.
In its 14 August report the International Press Institute revealed how one Tanzanian newspaper decided to suspend publication itself after publishing a story it feared might irritate officials.
Freedom House, which describes Tanzania as “partly free,” has described “mounting repression of the opposition, media outlets and social media users who are critical of the increasingly authoritarian president…”
Reports indicate that the situation has worsened since the election of President John Pombe Magufuli in 2015. Opposition politicians have been arrested, harassed, kidnapped and beaten. TV offices have been raided and newspapers suspended.
Kabendera is also no stranger to intimidation and threats. In 2013, the Guardian also reported that the home of the journalist had been burgled three times; officials had interrogated his elderly parents about their right to be Tanzanian citizens; and the couple was also told their son was under scrutiny for selling State secrets to European powers.
Six years later, Kabendera is back in the news in his latest run-in with the state.
Media reports say that on 29 July Kabendera was picked up from his home in a Dar es Salaam suburb by people who claimed they were police officers.
Initially Police said that the freelance investigative journalist, who writes for various local and international publications, including The EastAfrican, had been arrested over a citizenship probe.
His arrest spread widespread anger and fears over press freedom, which the Tanzanian government spokesman, Hassan Abbas, sought to allay.
He said, “Journalism as a profession in Tanzania enjoys its constitutional and legal guarantees; that’s why we have more than 5,000 media practitioners countrywide; we have more than 220 print media, over 35 TV and over 160 radios. All these perform their duties freely unless there is breach of media accountabilities.”
After Kabendera’s arrest was widely protested as an “assault on press freedom”, he was produced in court and charged with leading organised crime, failure to pay tax amounting to TShs173m ($75,000) and money laundering of the same amount. Press freedom advocates have called the charges “clearly retaliatory”. The charge sheet said he “knowingly furnished assistance in the conduct of affairs of a criminal racket, with intent either to reap profit or other benefit”. The charges are unbailable.
Reacting to the charge, Murithi Mutiga at the Brussels-based International Crisis Group said the government was “abusing the charges of economic crimes to target critics, secure in the knowledge that the offence is not bailable”.
Britain and the United States have urged Tanzania to guarantee due process of law.
Tanzania’s constitution guarantees freedom of speech but does not explicitly mention press freedom. Journalists say this distinction has allowed the country’s authorities to enact laws that curtail press freedom on the pretext of national security and the “public interest”.
One of the most troubling examples is the Media Services Act, which concentrates power over media in the hands of the government. The minister of information is responsible for licensing print media annually and is able to prohibit importation of publications contrary to the public interest and order private media houses to report on issues “of national importance”. The law does not define “public interest” or “national importance”, leaving wide room for interpretation.
In March 2019, East African court of Justice ruled that the Act violates press freedom. Following an application filed by three Tanzanian non-governmental organizations, the Arusha-based EACJ found that multiple sections of Tanzania’s 2016 Media Services Act, including those on sedition, criminal defamation, and false news publication, restrict press freedom and freedom of expression, and thereby breach the constitutive treaty of the East African Community, a regional economic bloc of which Tanzania is a member. The EACJ directed Tanzania to “take such measures as are necessary” to bring the law into compliance with the treaty, according to the judgment, which was seen by CPJ.
Kabendera’s arrest comes in the wake of reported human rights violations which in recent years has included the introduction of a series of amendments and laws that target bloggers and media, civil society organizations, arts and cultural organizations and academics and researchers in what is perceived by critical observers as attempts to control Tanzania’s narrative and stifle free speech and political dissent.
Erick Kabendera is expected to appear in court on Monday August 19.
***Image by David Peterson from Pixabay