The UK and US have warned Tanzania to respect “due process” after the “irregular handling” of the arrest of investigative journalist Erick Kabendera, who was detained two weeks ago.
Kabendera, who has written for the Times, Guardian and i newspaper in the UK, was charged last week with assisting an organised crime racket, money laundering, and failing to pay millions of dollars in tax, all between January 2015 and July 2019.
The freelance was reportedly taken from his home and arrested by plainclothes police officers on 29 July, with doubts about his Tanzanian citizenship – labelled as “preposterous” by i editor Oliver Duff – given as the initial reason for his arrest.
Kabendera’s arrest has been condemned by a number of prominent campaign groups and journalists, with Amnesty International calling it an “assault on press freedom”.
In a joint statement issued on Friday, the British High Commission and US Embassy spoke out against the “steady erosion of due process” in Tanzania.
They said they are “deeply concerned” after noting the “ever more frequent resort to lengthy pre-trial detentions and shifting charges by its justice system”.
“We are particularly concerned about a recent case – 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, contrary to the Criminal Procedures Act.”
The UK and US urged the Tanzanian government to guarantee due process to its citizens, pointing out it has recognised this as a “basic human right” by being a signatory to multiple UN Human Rights Conventions.
Foreign Office Minister for Africa Andrew Stephenson tweeted last week: “Concerned about the continued detention of Erick Kabendera.
“Charges keep changing – a tactic commonly used to prevent journalists doing their job.
“The UK will continue to defend media freedom. Tanzanian government must demonstrate their willingness to do the same.”
Kabendera has become known for investigating politics and the economy in Tanzania and recently reported on tension within its ruling party.
He wrote about the intimidation he has faced doing his job in his native country in a blog for the UK Foreign Office in 2013.
In it, he said: “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.”
The journalist came to the UK in 2009 after winning the David Astor Journalism Award which recognises promising young print journalists in East Africa, initially working for six weeks each at the Independent and the Times.
In a comment piece published one day after Kabendera’s arrest, i editor Duff recalled working with the journalist on the Independent newsdesk.
Duff wrote: “Tanzanian police claimed that he was being investigated over doubts about his Tanzanian citizenship – quite a surprise to the people who went to school with him. This is a common (and spurious) justification given for official harassment.
“President Magufuli should be embarrassed by the attention this sorry episode is attracting. May common sense prevail. Power to your elbow, Erick.”
Tanzania is ranked 118th out of 180 countries in the Reporters Without Borders 2019 World Press Freedom Index.
It dropped 25 places since 2018 after the “adoption of draconian legislation, the closure of media outlets and the expulsion of press freedom defenders,” the press freedom organisation said.
Picture: Youtube/Jamii Forums