Tanzania: On World Press Freedom Day, Let Us Ask - #WhereisAzory?

opinion

Speaking in parliament recently, Tanzania's information minister, Harrison Mwakyembe, wondered why people were still concerned about the whereabouts of Azory Gwanda, a freelance journalist who went missing in November 2017 in the country's Coast Region.

After all, he was reported saying, many other people, some of them government officials, have gone missing in the same region of Tanzania. So why should Gwanda be the "golden" one about whom people ask?

These statements were not as shocking as they should have been. They fit an unfortunate pattern of non-answers and dismissals from Tanzanian government officials when confronted with the question: Where is Azory Gwanda?

But this question is urgent, because Gwanda's story reflects how drastically press conditions have deteriorated in Tanzania under the presidency of John Pombe Magufuli. This World Press Freedom Day, Tanzanian journalists have less to celebrate and more to fear.

One of the last people to see Gwanda, whose work appeared in the sister newspapers Mwananchi and The Citizen, was his wife Anna Pinoni. She described the suspicious circumstances in which he disappeared, saying that he came to their farm in the company of unknown men in a white landcruiser.

Gwanda asked her where she had left the keys to their home and said he was taking an emergency trip, and would be back within a day. She later found their home ransacked and on November 23, 2017, she reported him missing to police.

Despite these obviously suspicious circumstances; pleas for answers from the local Tanzanian media community and international civil society; and even a July 2018 letter from UN Special Rapporteurs and Working Groups, there have been no demonstrably credible investigations into this case. Initial promises to investigate have not been fulfilled.

When asked about Gwanda in July 2018, Home Affairs Minister Kangi Lugola told journalists that authorities "don't interfere in the freedom of an individual that gets lost while at his home." After backlash he later walked back his comments but suggested Gwanda may have run away.

Lugola's predecessor at the Home Affairs ministry, Mwigulu Nchemba, had in January 2018 warned that members of the public should "shut up" about disappearances unless they had evidence to offer police.

Before his disappearance Gwanda chronicled mysterious killings and abductions in his community, including of police and local government officials. Pinoni in 2017 told Mwananchi that she thought his reporting might be linked to his disappearance.

Gwanda's reporting asked precisely the questions that Mwakyembe, in parliament in April, claimed we all ought to be asking. His disappearance denied the public crucial information about these incidents.

The failure to investigate this case sends a grave message about how much the government values the safety of Tanzanians who now ask themselves if they will face a similar fate by asking the "wrong" questions.

Magufuli, who styled himself as an enemy of corruption and government excess when he took over in 2015, has since also proven himself an enemy of the press and of free expression.

Last year CPJ documented the case of journalist Sitta Tumma, who was arrested while reporting an opposition demonstration and held overnight. Authorities later claimed, ludicrously, that they did not know he was a journalist because he was not wearing the appropriate uniform.

Since 2017, at least five newspapers have been banned, on specious allegations, from false news, to inciting violence and sedition. Almost always such bans are targeted at outlets that challenge the official narrative of a government that seems keen to set itself as arbiter of truth.

The Citizen newspaper was this year banned for a week, after it reported the weakening of the local currency and the state of Tanzanian democracy, without deferring to official sources. Five television stations were in January 2018 fined for covering a report by a non-governmental organisation on alleged human rights abuses during 2017 by-elections.

In 2016 popular live parliamentary broadcasts were halted, ostensibly due to cost cuts. The impact is that citizens can no longer as easily observe the processes of their democracy.

The repression has been codified into law.

The Statistics Act checks the extent to which journalists, academics, and even private citizens can question official government data. The Cyber Crime Act has been used to legally harass and exert pressure on one media outlet to reveal whistleblowers. Blogging has become an unreasonably expensive affair ever since the government imposed new content regulations last year.

The Media Services Act of 2016 restricts the content of news on vague and imprecise grounds and also seeks to license journalists. The East Africa Court of Justice (EACJ) in March directed Tanzania's government to amend the law. In meetings with the International Press Institute (IPI) and the Tanzania Editors' Forum (TEF) in April, Mwakyembe, the information minister, said the government was open to reconsidering the law-- a glimmer of hope.

Local elections are planned in Tanzania later this year and presidential elections are slated for next year. If there is anything to learn from recent elections in other countries, it is that elections tend to be periods of heightened risk and repression for journalists.

Therefore now is the time to ask after the wellbeing of not just Azory Gwanda, but all Tanzanian journalists. This is why we at the Committee to Protect Journalists recently launched a #WhereIsAzory? campaign to tell his story and call for answers.

The power of such international solidarity should not be underestimated.

I and a colleague of mine, Angela Quintal, experienced this power first hand last year when we were detained overnight in the country by government agents and interrogated about why we were there, including our interest in Azory Gwanda. The outpouring of support from within Tanzania and beyond, we believe, was instrumental in our safe release.

*Muthoki Mumo is the Sub-Saharan Africa representative for the Committee to Protect Journalists

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