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Friday, May 15, 2009

Norwegian Journalist told off by former Mwanza RC

This is Mwanza, a region in Tanzania that has been hard-hit by the spate of albino killings

Here I relate the story of a Norwegian writer (in his voice) as told to me by the said writer, a Mr. Sveinung, when he visited Dar es Salaam recently
I was doing a story on the situation for Tanzanians with albinism, visiting the area around Lake Victoria.

I had heard of the Mitindo primary school in Misungwi district, where around a hundred children with albinism live. They are kept safe by surrounding walls and guards. I had difficulty getting hold of contact information for employees of the school, so when I found the address, I just went over in a taxi.

I ran into the head teacher, a courteous man who explained that I needed permission from the district commissioner before I could visit. I was told it was a security thing and a formality. I went to the district commissioner, who told me I had to see the regional commissioner.

Back to Mwanza City.

After waiting about an hour and a half I was granted an audience with the RC, a Mr. James (now of Dodoma, replaced by Abbas Kandoro, formerly of Dar es Salaam), and a woman whose name or position I didn't catch.

He jotted down my personal details from my international press card. I was questioned about my stay and my work. Why had I come to Mwanza? Why not Dar es Salaam? Or Zanzibar?

Because Mwanza is where the problem is, I said.

But why Mitindo? Why not see affected people in the villages?

Aha, but I did, just yesterday.

He doesn’t like this either. Did I just walk in there? How disrespectful. People can’t be expected to trust every face they see. You have to approach the situation carefully and with respect.

I agree, I say, and explain that I had help from someone who knew the area and the people. I didn’t see anyone until someone assured me that they wanted to meet me. The insinuation that I’m this brute who just tramples into a situation with no regard to culture or people is a bit insulting, but I bite my tongue.

So where did I go exactly? I mangle the name of the village, mostly because it strictly isn’t relevant or any of his business at all.
Who did I go with? I fudge the issue but he insists.

Who was it that helped you?

I say that I can’t tell him. The effect is galvanic. He is shouting at me. Since I will not cooperate with him, he will not cooperate with me. He slams his notebook shut. He says that I should leave Mwanza region within 24 hours. I am not to talk to any organizations. He doesn’t even want to see me in the street.

But I have an airplane ticket for another day, I feebly protest.

Your ticket is cancelled! I am told.

I make one last attempt to steer the ship back on course. I say, very respectfully, for his understanding, that I cannot reveal my sources under any circumstances, whether it’s a high profile whistleblower or just some guy in the street who gave me directions. I would have no chance of ever being taken seriously as a journalist if I just handed over the names and telephone numbers of my sources when the authorities demanded that I do so.

This is to no avail. The RC refuses to look at me. He says that we have nothing more to talk about, upon which I take my leave.

Of course, my airplane ticket wasn’t cancelled. I didn’t even bother checking. And I stayed on in Mwanza for another three days, not to be troublesome, but because I still had appointments and a job to do. I got the impression that he tried to scare me off, I don’t know if he actually could have deported, from his region, a professional journalist who’d done nothing wrong.

Earlier in our conversation, before the whole thing got pear-shaped, the RC said that he was surprised to hear that I'd gone straight over to Mitindo without consulting him or asking permission from the regional authorities.

When, for example, he went to Europe, he said, he had to go through the proper channels. He knows this, I should know this. Now, I don’t know much about the RC’s diplomatic visits. They probably have their fair amount of formalities. But there are very few countries in Europe where you have to grovel before a regional commissioner or a governor to plead permission to visit some school. I have no problem with red tape except when its only purpose is to gag journalists. Of course, journalists cannot reveal their sources, and a man as intelligent as the RC knows this. He had no intention of granting me any sort of permission.

I don’t know if he finds that threatening journalists usually shuts them up, but the outrageous treatment I received is, in addition to the theme of a letter of complaint sent to my embassy in Dar es Salaam, a central part of my news story, in place of where the Mitindo section should have been.

I respect the RC. I know of at least one instance where he personally intervened to help find a school for a young person who was attacked. And the Mitindo School, planned expanded, is proof that the local authorities are doing something to protect their weakest.

While police and political corruption and involvement is widely thought to be a huge hindrance to the solving and stopping of albino killings and maimings, there was and still is, I believe, no reason to suspect it reaches the office of the regional commissioner.

But why the RC insisted on acting like someone who had something terrible to hide, you’d have to ask him about it.

All in all, the energy shown at that meeting would be better spent channeled into doing something about the desperate situation for albinos.

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