Reporters Without Borders (RSF) welcomes Tanzanian journalist Erick Kabendera's release today after nearly seven months in prison but regrets that he had to plead guilty to charges of money-laundering and tax evasion to be freed. The high price exacted by the authorities is indicative of the steady decline in press freedom in Tanzania, RSF said.
A stringer for such renowned media outlets as The Guardian and The East African, Kabendera was arrested on 29 July 2019 on suspicion of having obtained his Tanzanian citizenship fraudulently. Thereafter, the charges against him kept on being changed in a series of hearings because the prosecution was unable to produce supporting evidence.
After a charge of "organized economic crime" was finally dropped today, Kabendera obtained his release by paying the equivalent of 40,000 euros in taxes that he had allegedly failed to pay and a fine of 100 euros on the charges of tax evasion and money-laundering to which he pleaded guilty. His lawyer told RSF that he will have to pay an additional 29,000 euros in allegedly unpaid taxes over the next six months.
"We are extremely relieved by this investigative journalist's release but we continue to maintain that he should never have been imprisoned," said Arnaud Froger, the head of RSF's Africa desk. "The authorities exacted a high price, because he had to pay an exorbitant sum to get out of a prison he should never have entered. The seven months in detention and the thousands of euros paid for his release are indicative of the enormous pressures on journalists in a country that has seen a constant decline in press freedom in recent years."
RSF had repeatedly denounced the lack of evidence for the various charges being brought against Kabendera and the grave decline in the state of his health as a result of the months in prison. Everything was done to undermine him. Hearings were repeatedly postponed at the request of the prosecution, which said it needed more time to complete its investigations. Kabendera was not even allowed out of prison to attend his mother's funeral in December.
Since 2016, the year after John Magufuli became president, Tanzania has fallen 47 places in RSF's World Press Freedom Index and is now ranked 118th out of 180 countries. Harassment and intimidation of journalists has increased, reporters are often arrested, some media outlets have been suspended and several laws have been adopted that restrict free speech and the freedom to inform. After Azory Gwanda, a reporter for Mwananchi, Tanzania's leading Swahili-language newspaper, and its English-language edition, The Citizen, went missing in November 2017, the authorities provided no information about his disappearance and no serious investigation was ever conducted.