With Erick Kabendera behind bars, journalism in Tanzania is officially criminalised

INVESTIGATIVE journalist Erick Kabendera is behind bars and denied bail as he faces criminal charges for doing journalism. The journalist whose citizenship police said was a reason for his “arrest” was eventually not charged with a citizenship count. What went wrong?  The journalist who was being interrogated on seditious charges three days preceding his prosecution was eventually arraigned in court on charges of money laundering, tax evasion, and leading an organised crime – all invented and drafted after their original mission had flopped.
In fact, his arrest demonstrates two key features of the Magufuli administration – inconsistency and fraud.
At first, Erick was kidnapped from his home on Monday 29th July 2019.  Armed gunmen, supposedly plain-cloth intelligence officers, illegally invaded his house. They had sought to quickly abduct him but he locked the doors as he instantly made phone calls – using a UK-registered number – to notify some of his friends. A series of vehicles had been organized along the Bagamoyo Road to complete the now failed mission.
Erick’s neighbours arrived and demanded proof of identification and an official summons from the “officers” who had come to abduct him in broad daylight. But the six armed men forcefully took Erick purporting they were policemen.
It was only after a few hours that the gunmen, in a rather controversial manner, were able to bring to the fold the police force from the Mbweni Police Station – a nearby post  – to provide a vehicle for his “arrest.” The arrest, however, remains fraudulent since no charges had been presented and no summons had been delivered to Erick ahead of his arrest.
Erick’s abduction was made possible by the apparent facilitation of Vodacom PLC – a move with the potential to collapse the over 5 million customers market of the major Telcom. The Mobile Operator succumbed to an illegal instruction from the Tanzania Communications Regulatory Authority (TCRA) to bar Erick’s communications on his cellphone.
Erick had called to demand an explanation for the move with the explanation given at some point that Vodacom was only enforcing “instructions” from the TCRA. This happened less than a week after the Telcom had been accused of tapping their customers’ phones, submitting records to government agents.
Two weeks prior to his abduction, Erick had confided among his most trusted friends that he had been summoned by high-level government and ruling party officials some of whom had told him that within government circles he was regarded “hostile to the establishment.” A senior ruling party official was quoted as telling him: “We are afraid of your influence with international media and with the international community. It is making it hard for us to engage them.”
The official accused Erick of a clandestine role in tarnishing the country’s image, saying they were worried about his utmost influence with the international community and his extensive network with the most influential media houses in the world.
He has purported his innuendo against Erick on the pretext of his apparent experience working with Erick while heading an important media support project in his previous capacity.
His arrest and charges are, in many ways, a lesser evil. The manner in which Erick was abducted is similar to that of another journalist Azory Gwanda who was taken from his home by armed gunmen in November 2017. Gwanda has since never returned and was recently confirmed “disappeared and dead” by Tanzania’s Foreign Minister Prof. Palamagamba Kabudi.
The “task force” involved in abducting Erick is a criminal gang set up by the Magufuli administration. It is believed to be behind the abductions and killings of many of his critics. Set up parallel to the law enforcement and criminal justice structures in the country, the criminal gang operates with a “license to kill.”
They unleash tremendous torture and are over and above the law. Operating from its bases in Dar es Salaam and Kisarawe, the gang has access to all law enforcement agencies, and on numerous occasions has powers to instruct law enforcement.
The abduction of Erick is one such case of their influence. On the day of his abduction, it took the police force at least six hours before they would confirm his “arrest.” And that was after a barrage of calls from social media, activists, mainstream media and some influential people.
When an attempt to “finish” him was foiled, police “invented” an immigration query and handed him over to the immigration department where instructions had been received to charge him. The department eventually withdrew their “investigation” and insisted there was no basis for his detention. The sinister mission to strip him of his citizenship was also foiled.
This failed attempt led to taking over of the matter by a specialized unit at the Department of Criminal Investigation where several charges were experimentally framed up until they arrived at their most conducive charges. At least seven different police officers have been involved in his illegal interrogation. This included the forced demand for his personal bank account without any court warrant.
The police force’s official statement on Erick was that they were questioning his citizenship. It has not offered another one to counter this. The immigration department, too, issued a press statement on the same day, saying that after a seven-year investigation, they had discovered that Erick was not a citizen. But these are not the charges that he is ultimately facing in court.
What is evident is that the Magufuli administration is intent on silencing dissent. For some reason, they believe that with Erick’s arrest the world will know less of the government’s crude and fraudulent ways. The Minister for Information, Dr Harrison Mwakyembe, said during a press conference last Thursday that the only reason there is so much attention is that Erick writes for international media and that his arrest is not a big deal because journalists are prosecuted every other day.
Erick is known to have provided communications and publicity management advisory to the Magufuli campaign. Through his extensive international media network, he managed profiling and branding activities for the then-presidential candidate. Having worked under the CCM Campaign Coordinator, January Makamba, Erick quickly became a formidable force within the CCM hierarchy. It is for his role in the campaign that he built a credible network within the ruling party and government, which is why he received a prior caution over planned attacks against him.
The charges laid against him are on economic crime which, according to the police, derive from his apparent high living standard beyond what is usually accorded to a journalist in Tanzania. This completely ignores Erick’s stellar working for national and international media outlets, global risk assessment firms, international civil society and numerous embassies in the country. Police also accuse him of leading an unnamed organized crime racket and not paying taxes – all of which are inconsistent with the original reason for the arrest.
Now that he has been charged, the international community and all lovers of human rights must raise their voice. All in all, Erick’s non-violent abduction and arrest are a blessing in disguise for had it not been for the fraudulent and inconsistent conduct of the task force, Erick would have been dead by now.
What is evident is that with Erik’s arrest,  journalism has been criminalised in Tanzania. But it does not start and end with journalists. This is how the Magufuli government has been using the most draconian laws to fix its critics or dissenters in the name of “fighting corruption.” Next is a list of politicians and journalists in the bad books of the president. Charges of money laundering and economic sabotage await them.

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