The case against an investigative journalist shows Tanzania’s Magufuli widening a media crackdown

Tanzanian investigative journalist Erick Kabendera.
Tanzanian investigative journalist Erick Kabendera.
Image: REUTERS/Emmanuel Herman
We may earn a commission from links on this page.

On Wednesday, Sept. 18, Erick Kabendera will appear once more in court.

The Tanzanian journalist was initially arrested in late July after police claimed his citizenship was in question. They later changed tack and charged him with economic crimes including money laundering and tax evasion—accusations for which he cannot qualify for bail. The case has so far been adjourned four times, with Kabendera appearing in court limping on Sept. 12 amid reports that his health is deteriorating.

The detention of Kabendera is the latest in a string of years-long crackdown on the press in Tanzania under the government of president John Magufuli. Popularly known as “The Bulldozer,” Magufuli strode into office in 2015 after a populist campaign promising to tackle corruption and introduce large-scale reforms.

Magufuli did, in fact, take on the elites within his party, sacked civil servants with forged college papers, and channeled money meant for independence day celebrations to anti-cholera operations.

But those positive aspirations were short-lived, as his administration closed newspapers, introduced laws curbing digital media spaces, and proposed measures criminalizing the collection of data for anyone without official authorization.

Journalists also bore a heavy brunt with reporters including Azory Gwanda disappearing since November 2017. In 2018, Committee to Protect Journalists representatives were arrested and interrogated while traveling in the country to understand the difficulties facing the press. Investigative journalist Joseph Gandye was detained in August 2019 for reporting critically on the police while reporter Sebastian Atilio was arrested in September over posts he shared in a WhatsApp chat group.

Tanzania President John Magufuli.
President John Magufuli.
Image: AP Photo/Khalfan Said, File

The rapid deterioration of press freedom is extremely worrying says CPJ sub-Saharan Africa representative Muthoki Mumo. Western governments, rights groups, and global institutions including the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund have all criticized Magufuli’s administration and have withdrawn aid at times over the squashing of civil liberties.

“We are worried that the signs point to increased repression ahead of the 2020 elections, with journalists and the public’s right to credible information under further threat,” Mumo said.

Observers say Tanzania’s lurch towards authoritarianism could be solidified if Magufuli wins next year’s elections. His party Chama Cha Mapinduzi {CCM) has won every presidential poll in Tanzania since multiparty elections began in 1995.

Concerns have already been raised about his firing of the country’s spy chief last week, without giving any reason. There are also anxieties about the polls in the semi-autonomous archipelago Zanzibar and what will happen if security forces clamp down on rallies or meet demonstrators with force. Critics of the governments are frequently arrested while prominent opposition figures like Tundu Lissu have survived assassination attempts.

Kabendera likely attracted the wrath of officials given how his work—published in outlets including The Economist and The Guardian—held Magufuli’s government to account. His arrest sends a message to all journalists that they could be next, a member of Kabendera’s defense team, Shilinde Swedy, told Quartz. “For most of the journalists, this is a shock for them. They are already afraid.”

Swedy hopes the magistrate will grant Erick the chance to see a doctor outside prison so that they would know what is truly ailing him. None of the lawyers, Swedy said, have been allowed to see him at the Segerea maximum security facility on the outskirts of Dar es Salaam where he’s being held. “We are shocked and worried about what might have happened to him.”

Sign up to the Quartz Africa Weekly Brief here for news and analysis on African business, tech and innovation in your inbox