Tanzanian police on Tuesday denied they had kidnapped a prominent journalist from his doorstep, saying the outspoken critic of President John Magufuli had been detained for questioning over his citizenship. The arrest late Monday of Erick Kabendera, a reporter for local and international press outlets known for his unflinching coverage of Magufuli’s administration, adds to growing concerns of a worsening crackdown on press freedom in Tanzania.
Kabendera “was forcibly taken into a vehicle by six men who presented themselves as police officers but refused to produce the documents to prove it”, the 39-year-old reporter’s wife Joyce told AFP. His whereabouts were unknown until Tuesday afternoon, when police confirmed Kabendera had been detained for questioning.
“He was not abducted; he was arrested in accordance with procedures. He is in our hands and he is safe. The interrogation continues. There are doubts about his citizenship,” Lazaro Mambosasa, the police chief in Dar es Salaam, told reporters in the financial capital.
When pressed on the circumstances of Kabendera’s arrest, Mambosasa said: “We can make an arrest anywhere, anytime.”
But the arrest sparked outrage, with international media watchdogs saying it fit a pattern of the abuse and harassment meted out to journalists since Magufuli came to power in 2015.
“The manner in which this journalist was taken, by men claiming to be police, is very ominous and further evidence that the press is not safe in President John Magufuli’s Tanzania,” the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), a New York-based watchdog, said in a statement.
Reporters Without Borders (RSF), which in 2019 labelled Magufuli a “press freedom predator,” said the excuse given by police for detaining Kabendera “did not hold water.”
“We call on the Tanzanian authorities to stop these repeated attacks on the press and release this journalist without delay,” Arnaud Froger, head of RSF’s Africa office, told AFP.
#FreeErickKabendera circulated widely on social media, with internet users pointing out he was not the first government critic to be hauled before the police for questioning over his citizenship. Religious leaders, unionists and human rights activists critical of Magufuli have also been detained on similar grounds. Others referred to the case of Azory Gwanda, a Tanzanian journalist and government critic who disappeared in 2017 and has never been found.
Kabendera had written about being stalked and harassed, and one incident where his mother was held by police and interrogated for ten hours over her Tanzanian citizenship.
Magufuli came to power as a corruption-fighting “man of the people,” but has been criticised for his authoritarian leadership style and Tanzania slid 25 places on RSF’s world press freedom index of 2019.
On Saturday, Kabendera had published a report in The East African, a regional newspaper, about infighting within Tanzania’s ruling party and apparent efforts to block Magufuli from running in 2020 elections.