Press freedom groups have demanded answers from the Tanzanian government following contradicting statements by the country’s foreign minister about the fate of a journalist who vanished two years ago.
In an interview with the BBC, Palamagamba Kabudi, the minister, said reporter Azory Gwanda had “disappeared and died” somewhere in Rufiji, eastern Tanzania, without offering additional details.
The announcement was blasted by media watchdogs and activists who have long been calling for transparency in the case, prompting apparent backtracking by Kabudi on Thursday.
“The reference I made on Azory Gwanda contextually did not mean that Azory Gwanda is confirmed dead. To date, the government of Tanzania has no confirmation on whether Azory is dead or alive,” a government statement quoted Kabudi as saying.
In a statement on Thursday, Reporters Without Borders (RSF) criticised Kabudi’s “casual reference” and accused the government “of displaying a lack of consideration in its handling of the case”.
“After a year and a half of silence and then downplaying the journalist’s disappearance, the minister announces his death without explanation,” RSF’s Africa representative Arnaud Froger told AFP news agency.
“The flippancy with which the Tanzanian authorities have handled this case illustrates the low regard they have for the safe exercise of free and independent journalism.”
The United States-based Committee to Protect Journalists, meanwhile, called the minister’s remarks “wholly inadequate and distressing” and urged the government to immediately make public all the information it has about Gwanda’s fate.
Gwanda, a reporter for the Mwananchi and The Citizen newspapers, disappeared while reportedly investigating a series of murders of police and local officials in Kibiti, in the Rufiji district of the Pwani region.
According to his wife, Gwanda disappeared on November 21, 2017, after leaving in a white Toyota Land Cruiser with unknown people on an “emergency trip”.
He promised to return the following evening but was never seen again.
The government of President John Magufuli has been roundly criticized by press-freedom groups and local rights organisations for attempting to stifle media freedom in Tanzania.
The government denies the allegations.
Last year, 65 civil-society organisations wrote a letter decrying attacks against the media in the country, citing closure of media outlets, persecution and harassment of independent journalists, as well as the targeting of opposition members amongst their concerns.
Magufuli, who came to power in 2015, banned the popular Mawio newspaper in his first year, as well as two radio stations – Radio Five and Magic FM.
Tanzania ranks 118th out of 180 countries in RSF’s World Press Freedom Index this year, 25 positions below its 2018 ranking.