Tanzania: Was Magufuli Vs Erick Kabendera Intended to Intimidate Tanzania's Journalists?

Tanzanian journalist Erick Kabendera.
26 February 2020

Rights groups say the Tanzanian leader is raising the bar on media suppression. This week, investigative journalist Erick Kabendera was let out of prison under a plea deal that came with a $118,000 fine.

"Finally I've got my freedom. It's quite unexpected that I would be out this soon," Erick Kabendera said outside court.

The 39-year-old reporter who is came to prominence for his politically sensitive investigations spent almost seven months behind bars on charges of money laundering, tax evasion and assisting a criminal racket.

Kabendera had fallen seriously ill in the Segerea maximum security prison during his incarceration. He appeared in court a dozen times, often looking frail. The state prosecutor struck off the organized crimes charges during one of the hearings.

"Now, it is time for me to start mourning the death of my late, beloved mother," Kabendera said.

Authorities had denied the jailed journalist the opportunity to attend his mother's funeral. The 80-year-old had openly repeatedly and openly appealed to President John Magufuli to free her son.

Journalists fear reprisals

The case against Kabendera has divided public opinion. "It was painful for many Tanzanians to see Kabendera in detention and not allowed to bury his mother," Dar es Salaam resident Sane Joseph told DW.

Another resident, Stella Maigo, was of the opinion that the court did the right thing, "although we expected this decision to take place long ago."

"The only way was top enter a plea of guilty in order to get his own freedom," Kabendera's lawyer Jebra Kambole told DW. Political dissidents in Tanzania often face harsh sentences of five to six years in prison without trial, he noted.

The plea deal compels Kabendera to pay the fine and bars him from appealing his case. "Fresh charges could be brought against him if he refuses to pay the fine," Kambole said.

International and local human rights groups and press freedom activists say that Kabendera is just one more case in the government's playbook of media suppression since Magufuli was elected five years ago.

Kabendera's ultimate guilty plea was due to his failing health, Amnesty International said in welcoming his release. The watchdog organizastion had campaigned for his freedom saying the case brought against the journalist was politically motivated.

Magufuli's tenure has coincided with the disappearance or imprisonment of several journalists. Media self-censorship is widespread, as journalists fear reprisals for criticizing the president or his government.

Support for Magufuli dwindles

Tanzanian press freedom activist Emmanuel Chengulla told DW that the Kabendera case is bound to intimidate reporters. "Journalists may fear to reveal some information. The decision of this case may impact on freedom of the press," Chengulla said.

The case brought against Kabendera was intended to have that effect, his lawyer believes. "From the time of his arrest, to the time of investigation and his release, it is a violation of freedom of expression," Kambole told DW.

Presidential and parliamentary elections are due to take place in October and Magufuli is expected to seek a second term as his popularity dwindles.

Magufuli - nicknamed "The Bulldozer" - still pushes the right buttons with many Tanzanians with his hands-on approach to matters such as cleaning, fighting corruption, and strong-arming government employees into putting in extra hours at work.

The same kind of heavy-handedness he has been exhibiting towards dissenting voices in the media and the political opposition in Tanzania, is earning him little praise elsewhere.

DW was unable to reach the government for comments on the release of Kabendera.

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