By Fumbuka Ng'wanakilala
DAR ES SALAAM (Reuters) - Tanzania does not know whether a missing journalist who disappeared two years ago while investigating a series of murders of police and ruling party officials is dead or alive, the country's foreign minister was quoted on Thursday as saying.
Activists have cited Azory Gwanda's disappearance as a sign of worsening conditions for journalists under President John Magufuli's government, which they accuse of cracking down on press freedoms by suspending newspapers. The government denies the allegations.
In an interview with the BBC on Monday, Foreign Minister Palamagamba Kabudi appeared to confirm Gwanda's death and said a series of deadly attacks in the Rufiji area where he had been based were linked to armed "extremism", which has now spread to Tanzania's southern neighbor Mozambique.
But in a clarification issued through Tanzania government spokesman Hassan Abbasi on Thursday, Kabudi denied that the journalist was dead.
"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," the spokesman quoted Kabudi as saying.
Kabudi told the BBC's Focus on Africa program earlier this week that the journalist was among several people who disappeared and were killed at the area.
"The state is not only dealing with Azory Gwanda, the state is dealing with all those who have unfortunately died and disappeared in Rufiji...." he said.
Last week an Islamist militant group killed 11 people, including nine Tanzanians, in an ambush in northern Mozambique, the latest in a spate of execution-style attacks in the area since 2017 that have so far killed more than 100 people.
New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists has accused the Tanzanian government of failing to launch a credible investigation into Gwanda's fate after he disappeared on November 21, 2017.
"Suddenly the foreign minister mentions, almost in passing, that the journalist is apparently dead. This is wholly inadequate and distressing," said CPJ Deputy Executive Director Robert Mahoney from New York.
Gwanda had written several articles about mysterious deaths and disappearances in Rufiji for local newspapers, but his wife has said she is unsure whether his disappearance was linked to his articles.
(Writing by Hereward Holland; Editing by George Obulutsa and Gareth Jones)