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Erick Kabendera

Freelance journalist

Part of World Press Freedom Day

2nd May 2013 Dodoma, Tanzania

Case study: Tanzania

I grew up surrounded by people who had everything they required to lift themselves and their communities out of poverty. Despite this, they and their communities remained deep seated in abstract poverty.

I felt that becoming a journalist would help in some way: it would make me an agent of change by bringing their stories into the public domain in the hope this would bring about change.

For years I struggled to persuade my mother, my English teacher, mentor and role model that journalism was the right profession for me. She cautioned me of the dangers of exposing the truth in a country where there was a good number of examples to show that free speech was not always welcome or encouraged. There has been many an occasion in the last ten years when my mother has warned me of how my investigative stories or commentaries might place me in danger.

It came as little surprise I guess when security and immigration officials arrested her and drove her on the back of a motor bike over a bumpy road (when she suffers from a kidney disease) and then interrogated her for over ten hours in an attempt to challenge her Tanzania citizenship.

Fearing that they would make me panic, my mother chose to remain quiet until the interrogation had ended. However, for good measure, the authorities asked my mother to tell me that I should “stay quiet,” otherwise I would end up in jail. They further told her that I was alleged to be selling “top government secrets to Western powers.”

My mother is 76 years old and spent fifty years of her life in government service as a teacher. She taught three cabinet ministers and numerous other high-ranking public officials and deserved more than this from my government. Although I had heard from close friends and former colleagues of how they had received money via their mobile phones asking them to provide private information about me, I never believed it would reach a point when my parents would be put in danger.

This incident coincided with my return to Tanzania from the UK where I had testified against my former employer.

On my return mysterious people started following me on my way home from work. It was akin to a spy-movie: People dressed in long dark jackets moving around my house mostly at night. In the days that followed my house was burgled five times yet nothing was stolen save important documents I had collected from journalistic sources and my books were torn or stolen. Although the incidents were reported to the police, they took no action.

I am not alone.  Many other Tanzanian journalists have suffered similar or worse fates in an attempt to uphold the ethics of their profession and expose the truth.

In early 2000, veteran journalist Jenerali Ulimwengu had his citizenship revoked for criticizing the Tanzanian government, and in 2011 editor of the critical weekly tabloid Mwanahalisi, Saed Kubenea, was attacked with acid. Most recently, prominent editor Absalom Kibanda was brutally attacked at his home. He was savagely beaten by unknown assailants losing an eye and finger in the attack. He was flown to South Africa for medical treatment where he remains.

On the one hand, such journalist paranoia may be explained by a socialist ideology.

Most journalists in Tanzania learned their trade under the one party rule and socialist ideology of uniform thought and behavior and those that dared to question the status quo were seen as enemies of the state. This forced journalists into self-censorship and in their urge to fill their publications and pacify government criticism crafted stories from non-existent sources thus ensuring in effect, they government censorship of the media.

On the other hand (and securing this position) the government has retained draconian media – a law which controls absolutely, what information is shared with the public.

The government has recently invoked such laws by banning the critical tabloid, Mwanahalisi indefinitely after its editors published an investigative story alleging that the secret services were used to kidnap and torture Dr Steven Ulimboka, the leader of a group of striking doctors.

Not one Tanzanian publication was willing to print the details of my case. Some media outlets finally decided to run the story only after it had gained international circulation. Whilst my friends in the media were sympathetic to my plight, it was clear their hands were tied because they didn’t want to alienate the Tanzanian government.

It wasn’t until Reporters Without Boarders (RWB) and the Forum for Africa Investigative Reporters (FAIR) publicized my case that my Tanzanian colleagues gathered enough courage and strength to stand by me.

Three weeks after my case started being discussed in international circles, Absalom Kibanda, Chairman of Tanzania Editors Forum and a senior editor, was brutally attacked. This sent a strong signal to the media community, that nobody was safe. Thereafter journalists and editors came together in my support. Editors accused the government of harassment and persecution of journalists and have since issued a joint statement urging the government to cease its attacks on free media.

All that followed was further arrests of editors and journalists simply doing their jobs. Some have been forced to spend nights in the wilderness while others have abandoned their families for guest-houses and hotels after realizing that they were being followed by unknown people after work.

Despite the existing dangers, many journalists now stand by my side and refuse to be intimidated. They have realized that the trust placed in them by the people of Tanzania to tell them the truth, is more important than their fear of those who intimidate them.

To mark the 20th anniversary of World Press Freedom Day on 3 May, 2013, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office aims to “shine a light” to highlight repression of the media and freedom of expression using personal testimonies and other accounts from around the world.

For more information on our activities on freedom of expression, and human rights more broadly, read our 2012 annual human rights report.

  • The views in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO), or its policies.

1 comment on “Case study: Tanzania

  1. I salute your immense bravery. One thing is clear, one by one these dictatorial regimes which still exist around our world will be ousted by virtuous, hard working, and above all brave people who now have, and are beginning to use the biggest weapon ever against oppression, the internet and social media. More pressure must also be brought to bear on our own politicians to withdraw government aid which simply further lines the pockets of dictatorial greed in countries such as Tanzania.

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About Erick Kabendera

Erick is a freelance Tanzanian journalist and winner of this year's David Astor Journalism Award.