Tanzania cracks down on journalists while pursuing development reforms

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Erick Kabendera

Arusha, Tanzania – Press freedom isn’t usually ranked too high on the aid and development agenda.

In fact, it’s usually ignored. Even as many laud efforts by the Tanzanian government to improve the lives of its citizens through agricultural reform and other development aims, journalists here are finding it increasingly difficult to do their work, informing fellow Tanzanians.

The government recently shut down two Swahili-language papers, Mwananchi and Mtanzania, at the end of September. Internal documents reveal that a story published Mwanachi with the new government salary structures was the cause for the closure.

Tanzania’s relatively democratic government does not attract international headlines. It is in part due to its steadily improving economy and a president who plays nice with Western countries.  However, press freedom in the country are slowly eroding to the point that it is increasingly dangerous to do independent reporting in the country.

Freelance journalist Erick Kabendera, 34, is a case in point. Kabendera has become more cautious over the past few years.

Kabendera carries around his own wifi point in order to ensure the security of his computer. When at home, he uses a separate IP address from his wife in order to protect his family and their identity. Rumors spread recently that his wife is a nuclear scientist. Kabendera believes the government was behind it.

A regular contributor to The Economist Intelligence Unit and Africa Confidential, Kabendera has experienced varying levels of intimidation from the government. Acts against him and his family increased after he traveled to London late last year to testify against Tanzanian media owner Reginald Mengi.

Kabendera’s house was broken into four times earlier this year and he learned that government officials were offering to pay other journalists about him. His parents, clan elders in his home village, were detained for hours to prove their citizenship. Though he does not know who was behind the break-ins, the timing of the acts and the lack of police assistance after the fact suggest that powerful Tanzanians are unhappy with the journalist.

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His home now has a barbwire installation and security camera. His family has urged him do take the safest step possible and stop reporting. The weight of his family sits on him as he describes this tension, but Kabendera says it is too important to stop.

“In a country like Tanzania, people can get away with anything,” he said. “We need the situation to change. We need to have a better country, because this country to everyone. I’ve got to play my role as a journalist; speak out for myself and others.”

A report from the Committee to Project Journalists (CPJ), a press freedom watchdog, drew attention to the worsening situation in Tanzania. There have been 10 documented ‘serious anti-press attacks’ since September 2012, says the CPJ report.

It recounts the attack on editor Absalom Kibanda in March. Assailants cut off the top of his ring finger, extracted a few of his teeth and stabbed him in the eye. The nature of the attack and the fact that Kibanda’s wallet and iPad were not stolen indicate that it was not a random robbery.

“The rise in anti-press attacks against the press, set against a backdrop of repressive media laws, is sowing self-censorship among Tanzanian journalists, especially those working in rural areas,” wrote Tom Rhodes for CPJ.

The government launched an official investigation into Kabendera’s passport in March. Tahzania’s Home Affairs minister Dr Emmanuel Nchimbi said that there were irregularities in the passport that was issued in 2006. He was held up in Kenya for a few days, forced to prove that he was in fact a Tanzanian citizen. Now he carries his passport everywhere he goes, prepared to leave Tanzania at a moment’s notice.

Kabendera made the transition from working at Tanzanian English language newspaper The Citizen to a freelance journalist in 2009. Working at Tanzanian newspapers is often a stepping stone into the government’s press office. For many journalists the goal is not to hold the government to account, it is work work for it.

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“Opportunities for career growth were limited,” he said. “I wanted to get out of my comfort zone, explore new opportunities and to be challenged by working with other international reporters.”

Seeking a greater challenge, Kabendera joined the UN press corps. The American reporters were more aggressive, timely and reported at a higher quality than his Tanzanian counterparts.

Most important was the follow through on stories. Tanzanian journalists report on a story and then have to move on due to a lack of support for continued field reporting. He saw journalists follow stories for years.

Seeing the international reporters in action provided the challenge Kabendera wanted. He says that and his work at the London Times shortly after showed that he can accomplish his reporting goals on his own. South Africa, for example, can provide a blueprint for press freedom in Africa.

“We can look up to South African journalists and use them as role models,” he said.

It is Kabendera’s hope that he too can be a role model for his fellow journalists and young people. Tools like social media and online publishing are making it increasingly hard for the government to control the flow of information, he says.

He hopes to one day set up a platform that nurtures innovative young journalists. He wants to show them the value of journalism for Tanzania and the it, not working in the government, is an effective way to improve the nation.

For now, Kabendera will keep reporting on the stories about the government and Tanzania that will hold the powerful to account. Despite numerous attempts, the government cannot intimidate him to the point of stopping his work.

“People say, ‘Look, you have gone through so much. Keep a low profile.’ But I say, ‘No. I refuse to keep quiet.’ If we want the situation to get better we’ve got to talk about it.”

Tom Murphy reported this story in Tanzania as a fellow with the International Reporting Project (IRP). 

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About Author

Tom Murphy

Tom Murphy is a New Hampshire-based reporter for Humanosphere. Before joining Humanosphere, Tom founded and edited the aid blog A View From the Cave. His work has appeared in Foreign Policy, the Huffington Post, the Guardian, GlobalPost and Christian Science Monitor. He tweets at @viewfromthecave. Contact him at tmurphy[at]humanosphere.org.