Serious journalism, already an endangered species in Tanzania, may be on its way to extinction, if current trends are anything to go by.
Every once in a while we are made to reckon with actions on the part of the authorities that spell out the intention of those who rule over us to ensure that as little press freedom as possible is allowed.
In the end we find ourselves in a place where our media outlets have become empty shells, the remaining journalists go about their daily chores without too much enthusiasm and journalism has ceded space to rumour mongering and conjecture.
Not that our past is full of dozens of media practitioners who covered themselves in glory with their investigative work – these came few and far between – and we have had the misfortune of observing pedestrian clerks claim the title of “journalist” or paid agents for this or that other political enterprise hide behind the editorial screen.
What with the tumbling educational standards and the no-book culture permeating our society, journalism’s death knells sounded a long time ago. That has been sad enough. But now it gets to become Kafkaesque – really sinister and frightening.
Anybody who has read the dark novels of Franz Kafka, such as The Trial, will get the drift of what I am talking about. The accused knows that he is wanted for something he is not quite sure about, and even his questioners seem and sound quite clueless as to what infraction they are pursuing him for.
Well, there is certainly some Kafka in the disappearance of Azory Gwanda, the journalist who was “taken away” from his home to the south of Dar es Salaam almost two years ago, never to be seen again.
But it gets as Kafkaesque as it gets when Foreign Minister Palamagamba Kabudi declares publicly that Gwanda “is not the only person who disappeared and died.”
In the midst of all these chilling declarations, we get the strange case of Erick Kabendera, a distinguished investigative journalist in the land, whose house is ringed by strangers early in the morning and who takes the precaution of capturing the stalkers on his CCTV cameras and sharing their images with colleagues so the faces of his suspected attackers would be seen.
Eventually, the police issued a statement saying Erick was being questioned regarding his citizenship, a catch-all charge for all those who anger our rulers, but soon they had changed their minds, and apparently decided they would charge him with money laundering.
“Money laundering!?” I exclaimed. “Yes,” replied somebody. “They found a swimming pool on his property”!
Go back to Kafka, and you will find this: “It’s in the nature of this judicial system that one is condemned not only in innocence but also in ignorance.”
We are not supposed to laugh at grim matters, but given the comical ways our rulers operate, it is hard to suppress a chuckle.
After the Committee to Protect Journalists raised the alarm about Erick’s detention, the government spokesman, Dr Hassan Abbas, issued a statement offering some risible reason why journalists are safe in Tanzania “unless they breach the law.”
As evidence of this he went on to roll off the usual mantra...5,000-plus media practitioners countrywide, more than 220 print media, over 35 TV stations and over 160 radio stations...Fiddlesticks!
I wonder what they teach these youth in their schools, but for anyone who has received a basic education to argue for press freedom by citing large numbers of “journalists” and outlets is a bit rich for me.
It may be old-school nostalgia, but the case used to be made to privilege quality over quantity, but then that is probably gone forever.
The law of unintended consequences, for its part, has kicked in vigorously. Azory Gwanda has become a rallying point, bolstered by the foot-in-the-mouth declaration of the foreign minister, some people suggesting the minister could deliver closure by indicating to the young man’s family where his remains are. Erick, too, has been trending since he was taken.
Tanzanians have become more emboldened by the hardening of officialdom, and now more young people are willing to take on the state in law courts, even though the judiciary is suspected of being toothless.
In response, the Chief Justice has recently come out in defence of the principle of bail as a right for all, a principle ignored by many courts so far.
Jenerali Ulimwengu is chairman of the board of the Raia Mwema newspaper and an advocate of the High Court in Dar es Salaam. E-mail: [email protected]