Angela Quintal recounts CPJ’s ordeal in Tanzania

Johannesburg, November 13, 2018–“We drove down a dirt road and entered the premises of what appeared to be a safe house, through a large gate. Several men in plain clothes stood in the front yard. At least one appeared to be armed with a rifle. Their animosity was palpable… We were ordered out of the vehicle into the house and taken upstairs for interrogation.”

On November 7, Tanzanian authorities detained and
interrogated for several hours CPJ Africa Program Coordinator Angela Quintal
and sub-Saharan Africa Representative Muthoki Mumo in the city of Dar es
Salaam. The authorities searched their electronic devices, confiscated their
passports, and later accused the pair of being the country illegally, which was
false. Today, Quintal details their experience in South Africa’s Daily
Maverick.

Read her full harrowing tale.

Muthoki Mumo and I are journalists turned press
freedom advocates for the Committee to Protect Journalists. We embarked on a
10-day visit to Tanzania, primarily as a networking and fact-finding mission to
gauge media freedom in Magufuli’s Tanzania. We had nothing to hide, and even
had a letter of invitation from the government-recognised press regulator. But
then I heard a knock on my hotel room door…

US President Donald Trump was berating CNN White House
correspondent Jim Acosta on cable news when I heard a knock on my hotel room
door. I opened it to find the hotel manager flanked by several men and women in
plain clothes. They were there for a regular immigration check, she said.

“Wow. So many of you? I feel like a criminal,” I
joked.

The manager smiled, but it was no joke. It was the
evening of 7 November and we were in Dar Es Salaam, about to experience
first-hand the repression, Afrophobia, and paranoia that have become the
hallmark of Tanzania under President John Magufuli  – the very antithesis of what the country’s
founding father Julius Nyerere espoused.

My Kenyan colleague Muthoki Mumo and I are journalists
turned press freedom advocates for the New York-based Committee to Protect
Journalists. We embarked on a 10-day visit to Tanzania on 31 October to meet
journalists, human rights defenders, and politicians. It was primarily a
networking and fact-finding mission to gauge media freedom in Magufuli’s
Tanzania. It was slated as preparation for a possible special report in 2019,
as well as a high-level advocacy mission that would include our advocacy
director and members of CPJ’s international advisory board.

A lot of preparation goes into CPJ missions abroad. We
do not travel undercover and are always open about our visits. We even had a
letter of invitation from the government-recognised press regulator, the Media
Council of Tanzania, and double-checked the visa requirements. We stayed at a
hotel near State House which is frequented by cabinet ministers, government
officials, and business people and we held several of our meetings there even though
we spotted the ubiquitous intelligence agents lurking in the shadows. We had
nothing to hide. We also met others in their offices or in venues they believed
were more convenient or less public.

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It soon became clear that we had underestimated the
scale of attacks on the Tanzanian press and government repression. Journalists
spoke of anti-press laws, including the Media Services Act, the Cybercrimes
Act– under which many were being prosecuted for “insulting” the president– as
well as onerous content regulations aimed at bloggers that require hefty and
unaffordable registration fees. We were told about the suspension of
newspapers, journalists charged with sedition, spies in newsrooms, and much, much
more. Many spoke about last year’s 21 November disappearance of freelance
journalist Azory Gwanda, who was investigating extrajudicial killings in
Kibiti. Gwanda has not been heard from since. Many journalists were frightened
that they would suffer the same fate. Fear and self-censorship became a
constant refrain.

While we were there, an outspoken Magufuli critic and
opposition MP, Zitto Kabwe, was arrested and charged with incitement. Then Dar
es Salaam’s governor, Paul Makonda, announced a special task force to hunt down
gay people and the European Union’s top diplomat was recalled (read expelled)
because of his pro-human rights stance.

A week into our visit we got a slight taste of what
our colleagues have endured. We were raided in our hotel rooms by agents
purporting to be immigration officials. Our passports and electronic devices
were seized and we were denied access to a lawyer and embassy officials. I
managed to alert CPJ in New York so that our emergency protocols could kick in
and called my partner in Johannesburg to ensure high-level government
intervention. I also took to Twitter and Facebook to alert the world to our
impending arrest. Little did I know that I would cause a social media storm.

We were bundled into the back of a minivan with several
agents. The rear and side curtains were closed and there was an attempt to
disorientate us by apparently driving aimlessly around Dar. We were eventually
taken to a house in a suburb we recognised only because we spotted a sign for
the new offices of Tanzania Human Rights Defenders Coalition. We were told
earlier that the area was popular with Tanzanian intelligence and I had no
doubt that we were in their custody. I also discovered later that an
immigration spokesman had denied they were responsible for our detention. We
drove down a dirt road and entered the premises of what appeared to be a safe
house, through a large gate. Several men in plain clothes stood in the front
yard. At least one appeared to be armed with a rifle. Their animosity was palpable.

We were ordered out of the vehicle into the house and
taken upstairs for interrogation. The men specifically targeted Muthoki,
because she was a young black female and Kenyan to boot. Relations between
Kenya and Tanzania have deteriorated over the years, with the Kenyan foreign
minister officially protesting in late 2017 about the “hostile and aggressive
behaviour towards Kenyan citizens”. Clearly things had not changed.

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Muthoki was questioned in Kiswahili, accused of
betraying black people, and asked whether I was really South African. They
tried to separate us, but failed. Our phones and computers were confiscated,
and we were forced to share our passwords so that they could access our devices
and content. The fact that Muthoki had wiped her cellphone in line with our
digital security protocols was viewed with outright suspicion and she was
accused of deleting confidential information. They tried repeatedly to access
my emails, but CPJ had changed my password to avoid unauthorised access. They
boasted about their use of Israeli technology and claimed they could still
retrieve our data. CPJ also ensured that our social media accounts were
disabled after Tanzanian intelligence sent a false tweet from my Twitter
account praising God and claiming we were released, in an obvious attempt to
fool, but my niece countered this with a tweet of her own.

The agents claimed they had been watching us for
several days and knew whom we had met. They repeatedly accused us of lying.
They wanted to know why we were interested in Gwanda and whether we had visited
Kibiti, the area where he lived, and where he had chronicled the violence in
the area, including enforced disappearances and alleged extrajudicial killings.
They also asked about JamiiForums, whose founder Maxence Melo was charged under
the Cybercrimes Act and continues to be persecuted. At no stage were we
questioned about the so-called contravention of visa conditions.

We were alone at the mercy of a posse of men, some of
whom were very abusive and hostile. The only woman agent had long gone home. We
were taken back downstairs into a shabby sitting room and asked gendered
questions. An intelligence agent was particularly abusive towards Muthoki. He
even slapped and shoved her. I tried to intervene and was told to back off. I
was terrified that Muthoki would be sexually assaulted and I would be powerless
to stop them. Muthoki’s interrogator suddenly left the room and she was
unharmed. Throughout our ordeal we remained outwardly calm and friendly. Rather
than antagonise the men, we chose to joke and even discussed regional and
liberation politics with some of them. It was an Oscar-winning performance.

After five hours in custody, our handbags were removed
and we were told to sleep on the couches. The men’s superior, who later claimed
his name was Yusuf Mohamed, reappeared after a long absence. His hostile
questioning of Muthoki had been interrupted very early in our interrogation
after he received a call and left the room, leaving it to the others to
continue with the questioning.

He addressed me directly: “I did not know you were the
Africa programme co-ordinator. You are so clever.”

I wondered whether that was a reference to my social
media appeal. I asked that the air conditioner be switched on, and he replied: “You
want an air conditioner? Do you want to go to the hotel?”

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“Of course,” I said.

Mohamed announced that we were free to return, but
that our passports would be sent to immigration to check whether we were in the
country legally. He promised to personally return it later that morning. It was
clear he had received orders to release us, although some of his subordinates
were furious. I asked whether we could continue our meetings for the rest of
our visit and he said yes.

I have no doubt that my Facebook SOS and tweet about
our impending arrest contributed to our release. The statement issued by CPJ,
as well as a range of efforts to ensure government and diplomatic intervention,
were also key. The solidarity from partner organisations, activists, human rights
defenders, journalists, among others, was amazing. The driver, who returned us
to our hotel at about 3am, even called for backup, fearing the media had
descended on the hotel to await our arrival, but the hotel lobby was deserted
when we finally arrived. The Tanzanian government had underestimated the
backlash and was later forced into damage control mode. Hence the false claim
that we had violated our visa conditions.

South African diplomats, who were later joined by
their Kenyan counterparts, were at our hotel at 8am and we briefed them in
full. They and local human rights lawyers stuck by our side until our passports
were finally returned. I feared we would be re-arrested on trumped-up charges.

The South Africans were superb and even escorted us to
the airport and waited until we were safely on the flight to OR Tambo
International. So on Monday, when Minister Lindiwe Sisulu ignored what we had
told the SA High Commission and accepted Tanzania’s false justification that we
had been detained for working with tourist visas, I was outraged. I took it
more personally than the government-aligned Tanzanite newspaper’s ludicrous
attempts to discredit us with a false and defamatory cover story branding us as
spies.

While we could fly out of Dar, we remain concerned
that the journalists we left behind did not have the luxury of doing the same.
We fear they will be targeted when the furore dies down and that the
suppression of the Tanzanian press will escalate in the lead-up to the 2020
election. Local journalists deserve the same support and solidarity that
Muthoki and I received.

Yet if there is a silver lining, it is that many
people the world over have finally woken up to Magufuli’s repression. Pressure
must be stepped up to allow a free and diverse press to flourish and for the
government to finally come clean about the fate of Azory Gwanda.

Angela Quintal is Africa Program Co-ordinator for the
Committee to Protect Journalists.