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Voices in Danger: Break-ins and family interrogation fail to silence Tanzanian reporter

The troubles started after an appearance as key witness in the trial of a powerful media owner
  • @ArmitageJim

Tanzanian Erick Kabendera dreamed of being a journalist from his earliest childhood days.

Now, despite a campaign of harassment against him and his family, he is still determined to continue in his profession.

“It is what I do. I have worked all my life to get where I am and I will never stop,” he says.

Kabendera’s troubles started when he agreed to testify as a key witness against his former employer, the powerful Tanzanian media owner Reginald Mengi, in a libel case in the UK.

Before he came to the London High Court to testify, his friends and colleagues warned him about the implications for him, his wife and son of such an action. He says: “People told me I would get into trouble when I returned: they advised me not to get involved. I was the only journalist willing to testify. Others said ‘no’ but I took courage and did it.”

The case was heard in December. And sure enough, trouble started as soon as he got back.

“The first thing that happened was that journalist colleagues of mine told me they had been offered money from unknown sources via text messages to obtain information on me, my life, my family and so on. Some of them took the money, and even told me they had accepted it – that was quite depressing.”

Then, his parents were arrested by security officers and ordered, during lengthy interrogations, to prove their Tanzanian citizenship.

“It was ridiculous! My family have been here for generations: my father is the head of his clan. My grandfather was a clan chief. You cannot hold those positions unless you are born here and a citizen.

“But it was worse for my mother, who 76-years-old and half-bedridden. She has been a law abiding civil servant all her life but was put on a motorbike by officials and driven on it for an hour to the immigration office. They then interrogated her for 10 hours. Imagine that – for a frail, 76-year-old woman. ”

Kabendera says the interrogators told his parents that their son, who had worked for the Independent and The Times in London in 2009, as well as at the UN, was suspected of spying for British intelligence and Rwandan president Paul Kagame.

“These ridiculous allegations had been going around since I got back from London but were obviously nonsense. The government could easily have investigated and found them to be false,” he says.

Officials then questioned people from Kabendera’s childhood home, although no charges or allegations were ever directly put to him.

Then, on Boxing Day, he went on a journalistic assignment to Zanzibar. On his return, he found his apartment had been ransacked. Books and a few personal items had been stolen. The flat was a mess.

It was the first time the 33-year-old had ever been burgled. But perhaps, despite coming so soon after the High Court trial, it was just a coincidence. The police were not interested.

Ten days later there was another break-in. Books were strewn across the flat and stolen. Again, the police refused to act.

Kabendera started to get scared – both at the burglaries and the police’s response. He contacted his friends in London and at the UN, then notified the Committee for the Protection of Journalists, Reporters Without Borders, and Forum for Africa Investigative Reporters. “I just wanted them to know what was going on, in case something happened to me,” he says.

When, in February, a third break-in took place, he wrote to the minister for home affairs demanding to know why the authorities would do nothing to investigate. The ministry responded that they would follow up the case but there was little progress.

He was burgled a fourth time. “I started to get really scared then. The ministry sent investigators at last but they just came, looked around, wrote a report and left without saying anything. I knew I was alone. So I used up all my savings to install security equipment: CCTV, intruder alarms, to try and make myself safe.”

Then, a month ago, the editor of the newspaper Mtanzania (The Tanzanian), Absalom Kibanda, was attacked and badly beaten outside the front gate to his house. He had been a vocal advocate of Kabendera’s. Again, no suspects have been found for the assault. “It was awful: he was terribly injured. They smashed up his car windows. This was the guy who had supported me all the way through my ordeal,” says Kabendera. “I felt terrible.”

It should be stated that Reginald Mengi denies any involvement in the alleged persecution. Kabendera himself is not sure who is behind it, although the failure by the authorities to take his allegations seriously  seems strange, to say the least. Meanwhile, the sudden investigation into his parents’ citizenship can only have been carried out at the behest of the authorities.

Finally, in March, the government agreed to set up a committee to investigate his case. Progress in even setting up this committee has been at a snail’s pace.

Meanwhile, Kabendera continues to watch his back and keep on with his work.

The phone goes dead several times during our conversation. Kabendera is convinced his line is being tapped. But he refuses to be intimidated: “If I worried about such things I could never do my work. I need my phone to do good work, and I am absolutely not giving up journalism.”

Read more on the Voices in Danger website today.