The former Mail & Guardian editor, Angela Quintal, and Muthoki Mumo, formerly of Kenya’s Daily Nation, were detained overnight in Tanzania on Wednesday. They were visiting that country as representatives of the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ).
The CPJ fights for the rights of journalists around the world. In recent years, the organisation has had to do an increasing amount of advocacy in support of Tanzanian journalists, who are facing unprecedented levels of threats, harassment and repression from their own government.
This week, Quintal and Mumo experienced that harassment first-hand. Immigration officials descended on their hotel in Dar es Salaam, confiscated their passports and hauled them off to a detention centre. They were only released the next day, after an urgent intervention by South Africa’s department of international relations and co-operation.
It is impossible to view their detention as anything other than a brazen attack on press freedom and freedom of speech. Not only is the Tanzanian government going after independent journalists in their own country, they are now also targeting the very institutions established to protect those journalists.
Quintal, Mumo and the CPJ are unlikely to be cowed. Nonetheless, the incident will reverberate throughout newsrooms across the continent as yet another example of the worsening conditions in which journalists are being forced to work.
As such incidents go, what happened to Quintal and Mumo is relatively minor. They were not hurt, as far as we know, and were swiftly released. Others have experienced far worse.
An illustrative sample of incidents from just the past few months: Abdullahi Mire Hashi, a radio journalist from Somalia, was gunned down by unknown assailants. Kenyan newspaper journalist Barrack Oduor was assaulted during an investigation into a prominent politician, and his source was killed. Tharcisse Zongia, editor-in-chief of the satirical weekly Grognon, was convicted of criminal defamation and sentenced in absentia to one year in prison. Three Burundian journalists with the private station Radio Culture were attacked by police and prevented from covering a protest. La Nouvelle Tribune, a private daily in Benin, was suspended after reporting critically on the government. The offices of Nigerian radio station Fresh FM were partially bulldozed on the orders of the Oyo state government after critical reporting.
Together, these incidents, along with countless others that do not make the headlines, represent a serious assault on the institution of journalism on the African continent.
Journalists will not go down without a fight, however. Organisations such as the CPJ, and individuals such as Quintal and Mumo, are doing their part to raise awareness when the rights of journalists are abused. But the best defence of all is journalism itself. Even as it becomes ever more difficult to do so, we remain committed to speaking truth to power; to holding governments and corporations and individuals to account; to credible, responsible, comprehensive, fact-based reporting on our countries and our continent. In the face of growing repression, only the truth will set us free.