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Hydara killers revealed, internet blockages lifted and mounting concern for media freedom in Tanzania (Demo)

Shock and relief as militias admit to assassinations

The biggest news on the continent this month was the revelation by former militias of their involvement in the assassination of critics of President Yahya Jammeh’s regime in The Gambia.

Years of not knowing who killed Deyda Hydara and why he was killed finally ended for the family. One of his assassins, Malick Jatta, told The Gambia’s Truth, Reconciliation and Reparations Commission (TRRC) that he participated in the killing of the journalist.

The news was received with shock and relief.

On 22 July, Gambians “riveted to their radio and television sets” heard detailed testimony from Lieutenant Jatta, a member of former Gambia President Jammeh’s hit squad – the Junglers – on “Operation Magic Pen”. This was the code name given to the assassination plot targetting Hydara, the co-founder and co-editor of The Point  newspaper.

Hydara was known throughout the country for his outspoken and brave stance on corruption and his advocacy efforts against legislative restrictions on press freedom.  He was lauded as the founding member and president of the Gambia Press Union (GPU).

In a statement, Sheriff Bojang Jr., the current president of the GPU, said: “The revelations made by Jatta about the circumstances of the killing of Deyda Hydara confirm the long, widely-held accusation that the government of Yahya Jammeh perpetrated the heinous crime”.

Following Jatta’s admission, a regional network of IFEX members – the African Freedom of Expression Exchange (AFEX) – put out a strong statement calling on “Africa and world leaders to take immediate steps to bring former Gambian dictator Yahya Jammeh to justice for the 2004 killing of Deyda Hydara.”

Violence and repression was Jammeh’s trademark from the time he came into power in 1994. The oppression of the media was particularly ruthless and relentless, with journalists facing arbitrary arrests and detention, disappearances and torture.

A perfunctory investigation conducted by the state, soon after Hydara was murdered, took 22 days to complete, after which no one was found responsible and no arrests were made. For over a decade, Hydara’s family sought justice and pushed the Jammeh regime to deepen their investigation into his murder but their pleas were never heeded.

Acting on behalf of his family, Deyda Hydara Jr., together with African chapter of International Federation of Journalists (IFJ-Africa) eventually took the up the matter in the Community Court of Justice (CCJ) of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS).  The CCJ “delivered a stinging rebuke against the Gambian National Intelligence Agency (NIA) for having failed to properly investigate the murder of Hydara.”

Trainee journalist killed in crossfire

Swift and strong condemnation followed the news of the tragic death of trainee journalist 23-year-old Precious Owolabi, a National Youth Service Corps (NYSC) member who was on his first assignment for Channels TV. Owolabi was accidentally shot while covering clashes between the Nigerian police and members of the Islamic Movement in Nigeria (IMN) during street protests.

The Director-General of UNESCO, Audrey Azoulay, added her voice to the condemnation and said she trusted “the authorities will investigate the circumstances of Mr. Owolabi’s death and ensure that journalists can continue carrying out their work in safe conditions.”


During his interview on BBC Focus on Africa, Tanzanian foreign minister Palamagamba Kabudi mentioned that journalist Azory Gwanda had disappeared and died in the country’s eastern Rufiji region, adding that the extremism in the area had now been contained. Kabudi’s unwitting mention of Gwanda’s death had social media platforms inundated with messages asking authorities to provide details of his death.

In response to the unexpected wave of media advocacy organisations and activists clamouring for answers, Minister Kabudi backtracked on his original account. “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.

Along with numerous other demands The Coalition on the Right to Information (CoRI) has launched a petition asking the authorities to carry out a thorough investigation. Gwanda has been missing since 21 November 2017.

Arrests and abductions in Tanzania

As soon as news got out that freelance investigative journalist Erick Kabendera was taken from his home by heavily armed men, without identification and in unmarked cars, social media went into a frenzy.

As the pressure increased on authorities to reveal his whereabouts, the Dar es Salaam Special Zone Police said  they were holding the journalist while looking into his citizenship status.

Questioning the citizenship standing of critics is the Tanzanian government’s favourite ploy used to shut down outspoken government opponents while their status is regularised.

In an article he wrote on World Press Freedom Day, Kabendera himself reflected on the risks of being a journalist in Tanzania. Despite the dangers, he explains his determination to continue as a journalist, his reasons for choosing journalism, the role of journalism and its contribution to society.

Writing for Vanguard Africa, opposition member, activist, and practising attorney Tundu Lissu used Kabendera’s capture to highlight the deteriorating human rights situation in Tanzania.  Lissu writes: “… Kabendera is not the only victim of President Magufuli’s reign of terror. He is, on the contrary, one of the many in an increasingly long list of opposition leaders and activists, journalists, bloggers, businessmen, and civic and religious leaders who have been targeted because of their political opinions”.

AFEX is supporting the Tanzanian chapter of the Media Institute of Zimbabwe in demanding the immediate and unconditional release of Kabendera.

Deteriorating situation in Burundi

As the Burundian authorities tighten the noose on the media in the country, the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) announced the closure of its operations in Bujumbura this month.

Their pronouncement might have been triggered by the decision of Burundi’s National Communication Council (NCC) to withdraw the BBC’s operating licence while renewing its suspension of Voice of America (VOA) in March this year. The NCC also banned local and foreign journalists operating in Burundi from “directly or indirectly” contributing to the two broadcasters.

The forced closures of independent media and constriction of media space is being executed against a backdrop of continued deterioration of human rights in the country.

Meanwhile, Eric Nshimirimana, the dreaded head of the Burundian ruling party’s youth wing, was appointed head of the country’s state broadcaster, the RTNB. His appointment sparked outrage through the human rights sector as the Imbonerakure, as the party’s youth league is better known, are committing atrocities across the country with the implicit knowledge and authority of the State.

“Ruling party youths have carried out dozens of beatings, arbitrary arrests, disappearances, and killings against real and suspected political opposition members. Burundi has faced a political, human rights, and humanitarian crisis since April 2015, when President Pierre Nkurunziza decided to run for a disputed third term,” reports Human Rights Watch.

Mauritania switches internet back on and releases prisoners

There have been some recent positive developments in Mauritania.

On 3 July, the government switched the internet back on and released the director of La Nouvelle Expression newspaper, Camara Seydi Moussa, as well as opposition politician Samba Thiam. Twelve days later, anti-slavery activist and journalist Ahmed Ould Wedia was released. In the early hours of 29 July, “francophone Africa’s longest-held citizen-journalist and blogger, Mohamed Cheikh Ould Mohamed Mkhaitir, was also released.

Access to social media platforms restored in Chad

On 13 July, the Chadian government allowed access to social media platforms after a 16-month blackout. Since March 2018, Chadians had been unable to access sites such as WhatsApp, Viber, Facebook, and Twitter.

This positive development came on the heels of a broad, strategic campaign. In early March of 2019, exactly a year after the imposed restriction, AFEX sent a petition to Lawrence Mute, the African Commission on Human and People’s Rights (ACHPR) Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression and Access to Information, to urge the Chadian authorities to restore internet access. The petition, signed by 80 prominent press freedom organisations from across the globe was also sent to the United Nations Special Rapporteur Freedom of Opinion and Expression, David Kaye.  Ten days later, Mute wrote a letter to President Idriss Deby.

Three months later, during a digital technology workshop, President Deby announced that “he’d instructed internet service providers to immediately suspend the restrictions and he appealed to everyone’s sense of responsibility so that these means of communication are an instrument of development and not a source of division.”

Death of the White Zulu

Messages, tweets, photographs, songs and articles flooded multi-media platforms following the death on 15 July of South African musician Johnny Clegg. More fondly known as the White Zulu, the energetic, high-kicking, foot-stomping Clegg, was known for his anti-apartheid stance and activism as much as he was known for his singing and song-writing.

In brief

In Nigeria, media trainer, analyst, and election observer Lanre Arogundade received accolades from the media industry, scholars, development experts, public administrators and family members at the official launch of his bookMedia and Elections: Professional Responsibilities of Journalists.

Towards the end of the month, the Collaboration on International ICT Policy for East and Southern Africa (CIPESA) held a training workshop in Malawi on digital rights advocacy. The training was based on findings contained in CIPESA’s report : Privacy and Personal Data: Challenges and Trends in Malawi. Since the “country’s existing legislation does not offer appropriate regulatory mechanism it poses a threat to privacy and data protection.”

The continued detention of Cameroonian journalist Paul Chouta is being described as an action that is not commensurate with the charges being brought against him. His case was postponed yet again, because the plaintiff failed to turn up.

Newly passed revisions to Burkino Faso’s Penal code criminalises false information or communication of news or information that causes “demoralization” of defense and security forces “by whatever means.”

The editor of independent Arabic language newspaper Al-Watan in South Sudan, Michael Christopher, was arbitrarily arrested and detained after his passport was confiscated and he was prevented from leaving the country.

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