Picture: Beawiharta/Reuters

Johannesburg - The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) has called on Tanzanian authorities to immediately release freelance journalist Erick Kabendera, whom police said is being investigated over his citizenship status.

A day after the journalist was taken from his home by a group of men, Dar es Salaam police chief, Lazaro Mambosasa, on Tuesday said Kabendera was in custody. 

The journalist was picked up on Monday by men who told his wife that they were police officers, however, authorities initially denied Kabendera had been arrested.

The police chief said, the journalist was arrested after he failed to obey a summons. 

Mambosasa said Kabendera was being questioned about his citizenship and that police were working with immigration officials. 

CPJ said one of the journalist's relatives, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of safety concerns, said that the citizenship investigation was surprising because authorities had investigated Kabendera's status before and "cleared him." 

Six years ago authorities terminated a similar investigation into the journalist and his parents, calling it "ill-advised" and stating that the family's citizenship was not questionable, according to a report by the privately-owned publication, The Citizen.

In a blog post, Kabendera linked the 2013 investigation into his citizenship to attempts to muzzle him. The Citizen reported last year on several cases of authorities investigating the citizenship of government critics.

"This rehashing of discredited claims about Erick Kabendera's citizenship appear to be nothing more than a ploy by the Tanzanian authorities to justify their actions after public outcry over the manner in which the journalist was detained," said Muthoki Mumo, CPJ Sub-Saharan Africa Representative. 

"Kabendera should be released immediately and this sham of an investigation terminated. Tanzanian authorities must stop harassing their critics."

At the press conference, Mambosasa said that Kabendera was being held at Central police station in Dar es Salaam. 

However, when family, colleagues, and lawyers tried to visit the journalist this evening, they were told he was not at the station and that they could not see him until Wednesday, CPJ said after speaking to Jones Sendodo, a lawyer affiliated with the Tanzania Human Rights Defenders Coalition.

The coalition has filed a bail application that will be heard on August 1, according to Watetezi TV, which is associated with the coalition.

In the past, Kabendera has reported for several regional and international publications, including the British newspaper The Guardian and the website African Arguments. 

His most recent reporting in the regional weekly The East African covered alleged divisions in Tanzania's ruling party, Chama Cha Mapinduzi, amid alleged plots within the party to block President John Joseph Magufuli from running for a second term.

CPJ said it has documented the use of suspensions, restrictive legislation, and intimidation to muzzle journalists. 

Freelance journalist Azory Gwanda went missing in 2017 and the government has yet to provide a credible accounting of his whereabouts. 

When asked about Gwanda, Mambosasa told journalists that he could not provide details because it was necessary to keep investigations "secret" to protect evidence before it was brought to a court.

African News Agency (ANA)