By Isaiah Esipisu
KAMPALA, Feb 25 2020 (IPS) – After six months in prison, Tanzanian investigative journalist Erick Kabendera has finally been released at a cost of $118,000.Kabendera was arrested in July 2019 after police claimed that his citizenship was in question.
“We are holding him (Erick Kabendera) for questioning because authorities are doubting his citizenship. We are communicating with the immigration department for further measures,” Regional police commissioner Lazaro Mambosasa told journalists soon after the arrest.
However, when he appeared in court a week later he was charged with leading an organised criminal gang, money laundering and failure to pay taxes.
According to the charge sheet, the journalist “knowingly furnished assistance in the conduct of affairs of a criminal racket, with intent either to reap profit or other benefit”.
In a twist of events, the charge against his citizenship was dropped, and he was later cleared of charges for leading a criminal gang. This left him with the charges of economic crimes which included money laundering and tax evasion.
After postponing his case a number of times, the Director of Public Prosecution on Monday Feb. 24 accepted Kabendera’s plea bargain application, which paved the way for the Kisutu Magistrate’s Court to begin hearing his case.
He pleaded guilty to the charge of money laundering and was fined TZS100 million ($43,000), which he paid, thereby securing his freedom.
However, according to reports, the court slapped him with another fine of 250,000 shillings ($108) for evading tax, and a further 173 million shillings ($75,000) in compensation for the tax evasion, bringing the total fine to about $118,000.
“We welcome his release, but we are deeply concerned about the hefty fines levied against him,” Muthoki Mumo, the sub-Saharan Africa representative to the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) told IPS in an interview.
Amid speculations that Kabendera pleaded guilty to the crimes due to frustrations of being held indefinitely, Mumo said that she would leave that for the accused to say. “I am hesitant to speak on his behalf because I do not know the circumstances under which he pleaded guilty,” she told IPS.
Amnesty International also welcomed the news of Kabendera’s release, also criticising the fines levied against him.
“It is outrageous that he had to pay such a hefty fine to gain his freedom after having been unjustly jailed for exercising his right to freedom of expression.
“Kabendera’s mother died while he was in custody shortly after she was filmed pleading with President John Magufuli to let her son free. He has already suffered so much simply for doing his job and should have been released unconditionally. There is absolutely no justice in what transpired in the Dar es Salaam court today,” Amnesty International Director for East and Southern Africa Deprose Muchena said in a statement.
Kabendera also reportedly suffered illness while in jail.
His detention became a concern for many individuals and organisations, including the United States Embassy and the British High Commission in Tanzania.
In a joint statement, they said, “The U.S. Embassy and the British High Commission are deeply concerned about the steady erosion of due process in Tanzania, as evidenced by 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.”
Attempts to reach Kabendera’s family by IPS went unanswered today. But Kabendera reportedly said after the release, “Finally I’ve got my freedom, it’s quite unexpected that I would be out this soon. I’m really grateful to everybody who played their role.”
According to Reporters Without Borders, since Magufuli became president of Tanzania in 2015 the country has suffered an unprecedented decline in press freedom, as the president refuses to tolerate criticism of himself or his policies.
Kabendera has been one of his critics. Prior to his arrest, Kabendera, who also wrote for international news agencies such as the Guardian, the Independent and the local East African, had published an article in The Economist Intelligence Unit about the nation’s president entitled: ‘John Magufuli is bulldozing Tanzania’s freedom’.
It will be remembered that during Magufuli’s second year in office, the Media Services Act was passed. The law allows for harsh penalties for content deemed defamatory, seditious or illegal.
According to a recent report by Amnesty International, the Media Services Act, 2016, enhances censorship, violates the right to information and limits scrutiny of government policies and programmes.
“From 2016, the Tanzania government has used the Media Service Act to close, fine and suspend at least six media outlets for publishing reports on allegations of corruption and human rights violations and the state of Tanzania’s economy,” reads part of the report.
In 2018, the government approved another law to regulate content posted online. According to the new rule, Tanzanians operating online radio stations and video (TV) websites, including bloggers are required to apply for a licence, pay a licence fee upon registration as well as annual fees, totalling about $900 a year.
Meanwhile, Amnesty International is urging Tanzania’s regional and international partners and human rights mechanisms to put pressure on the authorities to ensure that the human rights situation in the country does not deteriorate further, including by strongly and publicly condemning the growing human rights violations and abuses and raising individual cases with government officials.
Last year Amnesty International reported that Tanzania had “withdrawn the right of individuals and NGOs to directly file cases against it at the Arusha-based African Court on Human and Peoples’ Rights” in a move said to block the ability for individuals and NGOs to seek redress for human rights violations.
The arrest of Kabendera, according to analysts, could be a strategy by the government to instil fear in journalists who are critiques of the government and its policies.
By Isaiah Esipisu