‘Engaging in journalism activities without permission’,
May 29th, 2011
KAMPALA, UGANDA—Given that I had been followed around the tiny town for two days by men in ’80s-style wraparound sunglasses, it wasn’t really a surprise to me when I finally got arrested last Thursday in northern Tanzania.
I had gone to the East African nation to investigate the deaths of five villagers gunned down at a mine in North Mara belonging to African Barrick, a subsidiary of Toronto-based mining giant Barrick Gold Corp. Barrick said the men killed by security forces — initial reports had pegged the death toll at seven — were “intruders.” Family members of the victims said the gold-laced stones the men routinely collected at the mine were their only means of survival.
Trucks of police in full riot gear patrolled the streets of Tarime, the town nearest the mine. The situation was tense and relatives of the deceased were huddled together in a compound.
Tuesday morning, I woke up and found the room next to mine empty. The environmental and human rights lawyer who had been staying there had been arrested, along with seven other people who had been guarding the bodies of the victims at the town mortuary.
Witnesses said they saw police load the coffins of four of the victims onto a truck Monday night. They were found the next morning dumped on the roadside next to the deceased’s respective homes.
But there wasn’t really anything I could do to get rid of the spies; as a small white woman in a Tanzanian town of only a couple of thousand, I didn’t really have hope of losing them in a crowd.
So the security men sat across from me at lunch, followed me back to my hotel after interviews and perched on stools in the bar watching me come and go. But they maintained their distance, so I hoped that watching was all they were going to do.
Then Thursday at 9 a.m., I went to the office of the district commissioner of Tarime. I wanted to ask him if it was true that, as family members of the deceased had told me, he said it was unfortunate that police had killed only five people that night at the mine.
Upon my arrival, however, the commissioner shook my hand and led me to an office with several police officers. One of them told me that I was suspected of having pictures on my camera dangerous to the “security and stability” of the country. In fact, I only had a few photos of the family members of the victims.
I was then taken to the immigration office, where three immigration officers and a police detective questioned me. I was told I was being detained for working in Tanzania without a work permit, but their questions made it clear their real interest was in more than my immigration status.
They asked me why a foreigner like me would be interested in the deaths at the North Mara mine, how I had come to learn about the killings and what I had concluded about them.
As the officers spoke in Swahili, I worried that the episode would end with a night in a Tanzanian jail.
But after being detained for eight hours, I was formally charged with “engaging in journalism activities without permission” and given bail.
Though I had agreed to plead guilty to the charges, I was driven to my hotel and my room was searched.
The detective solved the problem of the lack of a warrant by grabbing a piece of paper from the manager’s office and writing up a “temporary emergency searching order” on the spot. Police and immigration officials confiscated my laptop and notebooks. My phone, camera and passport were also kept overnight.
The next day, I went to the local court and paid a small fine. Even though there were no outstanding charges against me, police officers kept my property for several hours, asking me for my computer password so they could search it.
Finally, at about 4 p.m. on Friday, three immigration officers drove me to the Kenyan border and deported me.
But mine was a relatively minor ordeal compared with how some others were treated in the wake of these killings.
Tanzanian member of parliament Tundu Lissu was among the eight people arrested Monday while guarding the bodies of the victims at the mortuary. They were arrested, beaten and put in the back of a truck.
“We were piled on top of each other and they stomped on us with their boots,” he said.
African Barrick says the conduct of the Tanzanian police in the aftermath of the shootings is not related to any services the force provides the company.
“This is a police matter and concerns how the Tanzanian police interact with the community. African Barrick Gold does not have any control or influence over police in this respect,” the company said in an email.
But local leaders accuse the company of complicity in the conduct of the police, because it employs officers to provide mine security, and allege that African Barrick is benefiting from it.
Lissu said: “A community that has been intimidated is a community that can’t demand its rights from the company.”