Journalists for Human Rights Face New Challenge in East Africa

A family living on the streets of Dar es Salaam. Courtesy of Teri Fikowski

A family living on the streets of Dar es Salaam. Courtesy of Teri Fikowski

Years of experience working with journalists in West Africa could not prepare Canada’s media development organization, Journalists for Human Rights (JHR), with what would happen next in East Africa. Written by a former JHR Tanzania media trainer.

ARUSHA, Tanzania – Canadian journalist Chris Oke never thought when he accepted a position at Journalists for Human Rights, or JHR, in Tanzania that he would be robbed, arrested by police, and witness a government crackdown on the media.

All this in his first two weeks as a JHR trainer at Mwananchi, which means The Citizen in English. It’s one of Tanzania’s most widely circulated newspapers. Within the first few days getting acquainted to Dar es Salaam, the chaotic coastal capital, Oke, 30, had his backpack, phone, laptop and external hard drive containing all his work stolen.

“I left my [hotel] room key with the receptionist. We’d been instructed to do this all week, and it had become habit. I was back in my room by 3 a.m. That was when I discovered my computer was gone. Other things were missing as well. I gathered my friends, and reported the theft to the front desk. There was no sign of forced entry. The door was closed and locked when I left and when I returned. The windows were also closed,” Oke wrote in Errant Magazine last November about the robbery.

Media development in Africa

JHR is a Canadian media development organization working for over 10 years in sub-Saharan Africa, building the media sector by working alongside African journalists, helping them to report on human rights abuse.

In 2013, for the first time in its 11 years of existence, JHR branched out from its long-time work in Ghana, Liberia and Sierra Leone into Tanzania. The East African country is much different from West Africa when it comes to the lack of press freedom and repressive media laws.

Mike MacDonald, 30, a journalist who worked with Postmedia News in Toronto, spent the first six months of JHR’s year-long engagement with Mwananchi, a daily which is published in Swahili, the common language of Tanzania’s nearly 48 million people.

“Unfortunately, you can’t work around this barrier a lot of the time. You just have to accept that there will be a lot going on that you don’t understand. Realistically, you can’t ask for a translation every 30 seconds because that would eviscerate productivity,” MacDonald said.

Oke and MacDonald were out on assignment during their week overlap last September, as MacDonald finished his contract term and Oke began his own. MacDonald’s last day, and Oke’s first, on the job became an unforgettable one as they attended a military funeral with Mwananchi journalists for a Tanzanian soldier killed in DR Congo.

“We showed a bunch of documents to enter the base but when we were leaving we were pulled aside for questioning,” MacDonald recounted. “We had to surrender our passports and were released for the night on bail after being detained for perhaps 10 hours or so, even though they weren’t any formal charges leveled against us. We were told by our lawyer that if we were found guilty of espionage, we could face 30 years in prison.”

After meeting with officials from the Canadian High Commission, lawyers, the military police, and the head of local police, MacDonald and Oke were let go. “It was all a big misunderstanding,” MacDonald added.

Human rights media

Not every journalist working with JHR faced this kind of adversity. For one, it was an occasion to produce some real human rights media, or Rights Media, as JHR calls its rights-based approach and work produced by journalists.

Teri Fikowski, 25, spent her time as a JHR trainer at Clouds FM, Tanzania’s biggest entertainment radio and television network. Her experience reporting at Global Television in Lethbridge, Alberta gave her instant credibility in the newsroom.

Working on an in-depth story with two reporters from Clouds about homeless children in Dar es Salaam, Fikowski heard something which really upset her.

“It wasn’t until one reporter was translating an interview with a young boy about the hardships of living on the street that I was taken aback. The boy recounted how he receives no food, no clothing, no shelter, and was being raped by police,” she said.

Fikowski was horrified by his nonchalance when referring to the rape he endured at the hands of those meant to serve and protect vulnerable members of society. “Maybe I was naïve,” she added.

When she returned to the station, Fikowski held a workshop for reporters, informing them of children’s rights. She also discussed ways to approach police to politely ask for a response to these serious allegations.

“When we aired the series of stories on radio and TV on the accusations officers were sexually exploiting street children, they promised to launch an investigation,” Fikowski said. “After the series aired, a number of other media outlets picked up on the story. It started a conversation. I consider it a success because of the experiences gained by the journalists, their willingness to cover such an issue in the future, as well as knowing some ways to tackle hostile subjects in the future.”

Tanzania’s repressive media law

As for Oke, after dealing with the possibility of being thrown into jail his first week, his second week didn’t fare much better as he witnessed Mwananchi newspaper shut down by the government for publishing “seditious” material under the archaic 1976 Newspaper Act.

“The ban was really felt by the correspondents, who get paid per article and thus weren’t making any money at all for two weeks,” Oke said. “It would’ve been a great opportunity to work on some feature stories and do some training. As it was, I was still trying to get to know people, many of whom stopped coming in to the office, and get an idea of the needs of the paper, which was extremely difficult given the ban.”

Rachel Pulfer, JHR’s executive director, said the organization is assessing and evaluating its pilot year in Tanzania. In 2013, the nation dropped 36 points on the World Press Freedom Index.

“It’s been a real challenge for our trainers. They showed real tenacity,” Pulfer said. “I’m impressed how they were able to navigate in spite of major obstacles.”

*Since 2002, JHR has worked in 21 countries in Africa and the Middle East. In 2013, it began working with aboriginal journalists in northern Ontario.

Published online @ Huffington Post Canada

Adam Bemma is a journalist, humanitarian, and media consultant based in Chiang Mai, Thailand.

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