by Ben Taylor
Erick Kabendera, a leading Tanzanian investigative journalist whose articles have been published around the world, was arrested in July, prompting widespread criticism.
Kabendera, who has written for The Guardian, The Independent and Economist Intelligence Unit in the UK, as well as the East African and several Tanzanian newspapers. His work has been notable for his willingness to report facts that embarrass the government, and he has also been a prominent critic of President Magufuli’s government on social media.
The situation with Kabendera’s arrest remained unclear for several days. He was picked up from his home by unknown people in a vehicle with no number plate. His whereabouts was initially unknown, prompting alarm among his friends and family.
Two days later, the government admitted having detained Kabendera, and pointed to immigration concerns – that he might not be a Tanzanian citizen. Similar allegations have been made in the past, though the Immigration Department at the Ministry of Home Affairs issued a statement in 2013 clarifying that Mr Kabendera and his parents were indeed citizens of Tanzania.
Immigration concerns were soon dropped, however, to be replaced by allegations that Kabendera had contravened the Cybercrime Act through his work with the Economist Intelligence Unit. These new claims did not make it onto the eventual charge sheet either, which instead contains charges of money laundering, tax evasion and organised crime. Money laundering is a non-bailable offence in Tanzania, and the journalist is therefore likely to spend several months behind bars even before his case is heard.
Kabendera’s lawyer, Jebra Kambole, said that the questioning since his arrest indicated that the real reason Kabendera had been detained was his work as a journalist.
The case drew strong criticism from pro-democracy campaigners and press freedom advocates. The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) wrote a public letter to President Magufuli, arguing that “the public commitments that Tanzania has made to press freedom will remain empty words without urgent action,” and urging the government to drop the charges against Kabendera.
The UK government also expressed its concern, in a statement issued jointly by the British High Commission and the US Embassy in Tanzania. The statement referred to the “steady erosion of due process in the justice system in Tanzania,” citing frequent resort to lengthy pretrial detentions and shifting charges.
“The irregular handling of the arrest, detention, and indictment of investigative journalist Erick Kabendera, including the fact that he was denied access to a lawyer in the early stages of his detention, (is) contrary to the Criminal Procedures Act,” the statement read. It concludes by urging the Tanzania government “to guarantee due process to each of its citizens, which it has recognized as a basic human right as signatory to multiple UN Human Rights Conventions, among them the International Covenant for Civil and Political Rights.”
Emmanuel Buhohela, spokesman at Tanzania’s foreign affairs ministry, said that the matter regarding Kabendera is before the country’s courts of law. “They [the diplomats] should let justice follow its due course,” he told Reuters news agency.