Things fall apart in Tanzania: on media manipulation and hypocrisy – By Edward Clay
A Tanzanian journalist, who won an award for journalists of exceptional potential enabling him to work for British newspapers in 2009, gave evidence for the defendant in November 2012 in a libel trial in London brought by a Tanzanian media magnate, Reginald Mengi. Mr Mengi lost his libel suit, and hefty costs.
Erick Kabendera, now aged 33, worked on The Times and Independent under arrangements of the David Astor Journalism Awards Trust in 2009.
His home in Tanzania has been burgled three times in recent months, and Tanzanian officials have interrogated his elderly parents about their right to be Tanzanian citizens; officials said their son was under scrutiny for selling secrets to European powers and should be more “˜humble’.
Mr R Mengi is executive chairman of IPP Limited, well-connected and very prominent in Tanzania. He presents himself as a philanthropist and opponent of corruption. His flagship newspaper is The Guardian of Tanzania, for which Mr Kabendera worked in 2009 when he won his Astor award.
Mr Mengi is also a member of the Commonwealth Business Council which is committed to promoting good business practice in Commonwealth countries.
He is the older brother of Benjamin Mengi, another prominent businessman. In 2004- 5, Benjamin Mengi made a legal lease of land to two British private investors in Tanzania, Stewart Middleton and Sarah Hermitage, and then welched on the deal.
The Middletons were harassed and intimidated by officials; denied proper protection of the law, they and their staff were mistreated and their farm despoiled. They were forced to flee Tanzania in fear of their lives in 2008. Benjamin Mengi then took possession of the land.
In seeking recompense for their illegal treatment and the loss of their investment, Sarah Hermitage alleged that some of Mr R Mengi’s papers supported their mistreatment with hostile and defamatory allegations. Reginald Mengi denied during the trial of his libel suit against Hermitage that he was responsible for the editorial content of his newspapers. Erick Kabendera, his former employee, testified in support of contrary evidence, showing there was such interference.
R Mengi lost his suit. He was held to have been complicit in his brother’s corruption and intimidation; and to have brought misleading and untrue evidence before the Judge in pursuing his oppressive litigation.
Successive British High Commissioners to Tanzania have been sympathetic to the Middletons. In contrast, Ministers in the Coalition government have turned their backs on their travails. The then International Development Secretary , Andrew Mitchell, assured the Chairman of the Lords’ Select Committee on Economic Affairs, Lord MacGregor, in testimony to the Committee in 2011, that ministers had made repeated representations on behalf of the Middletons, and “..would continue to raise this disturbing case with the Tanzanian government whenever the appropriate opportunity arises.”
In fact, Freedom of Information enquiries of the three relevant government departments – FCO, DBIS and DfID – to test this assertion, elicited no evidence that Coalition ministers had ever raised the issues.
DfID’s programmes for Tanzania over the five years to 2015 include spending £34 million on helping civil society and the media to hold the government to account; and a further £20 million to improve the ability of institutions like the judiciary and police to fight corruption.
IPP Media reported on 7 February that the Tanzanian President, Jakaya Kikwete, said on his country’s National Law Day that people should safeguard and promote justice by helping the law enforcement agencies. IPP Media reported him to have added:
“…[they] should always learn how to use legal institutions such as courts to secure their rights and stop taking law into their own hands, even if a person was suspected to have committed an offense.”
It was announced this week that the government had started distributing Tanzania’s new ID cards for citizens. That makes more sinister the interrogation of Kabendera’s parents about their citizenship.
Last September, a TV journalist was killed during clashes between opposition party supporters and police. In January 2013, another journalist was found murdered in unexplained circumstances.
The government has also delayed for further consultation a freedom of information bill.
Evidence given in R Mengi’s lost libel case showed that editors were instructed not to comment on President Kikwete without clearance from management.
Will British ministers express their concern and demand a full, independent and open enquiry into the persecution of Erick Kabendera and his family?
He acted bravely in giving evidence for the defence in a British court.
In the process will they also protest over the treatment suffered by two British citizens in Tanzania at the hands of prominent businessmen, supported by the media organs of one of them, and the misbehaviour of State institutions which should have protected their rights?
If British ministers ignore abuse of the rights of British citizens in another country, they condone abuses of the rights of citizens of that country. Meanwhile, the returns on DfID’s investments in civil society, media and the rule of law in Tanzania seem doubtful.
Sir Edward Clay is former British High Commissioner to Kenya, Uganda and non-resident Ambassador to Rwanda and Burundi.