Kenyan journalists under threat as presidential election draws near

A view of journalists and photographers attending a joint press conference by then-Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and Uhuru Kenyatta, President of the Republic of Kenya, at the Kenyan State House, in July 2016.

As Kenyans prepare for presidential elections in August, the government is cracking down on journalists, according to a new report. Many fear that the country could see the same widespread violence that left 1,200 people dead after the 2007 election.

Police and government officials are intimidating and beating journalists who report on sensitive issues such as corruption and the post-election violence a decade ago, according to Human Rights Watch.

Article 19, an Eastern African press freedom group, collaborated with Human Rights Watch to produce the report, which documents attacks on 23 journalists and bloggers since 2013. Police and government officials failed to investigate attacks and threats, the groups said.

“For Kenya’s August elections to be credible and fair, the media needs to be able to report on pressing issues of national interest without fear of reprisals,” Otsieno Namwaya, Africa researcher at Human Rights Watch, said in a statement. “President Uhuru Kenyatta should publicly underscore the importance of free expression and condemn threats and attacks on journalists and bloggers.”

The atmosphere makes it difficult for journalists to do their jobs, and is a direct violation of Kenya’s constitution and international laws that protect freedom of speech and the press. The government cited national security concerns as the reason for trying to ban journalists who reported on extrajudicial killings in the country. Some violations are subtle, such as threatening to withhold advertising money to news organizations that publish stories the government or individuals do not like.

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Interviews conducted for the report show the impact of a restricted press. One journalist from Eldoret, a city in the central part of the country that was at the forefront of the post-election violence and is witnessing ongoing land grabs, avoids reporting on “stories relating to corruption or irregularities in the Land Ministry” because it is “not worth the risk.” Those who report on the issues must take steps to avoid surveillance.

“If you have written about security agencies or corruption-related stories, you have to know that you are being followed or your phone is being listened into,” a Nairobi-based reporter said in the report.

The Nation Media Group is one of the biggest news organizations in the country. Its investigative reporting exposed government corruption and caused senior government officials to complain about the coverage. Officials forced the Nation to fire staff, one senior editor said.

Understanding the scope of limited press freedom is important as Kenyatta tries to win re-election over challenger Raila Odinga, whom he defeated five years ago.

Odinga is a long-standing opposition candidate and veteran politician. He faced off against then-incumbent President Mwai Kibaki in 2007. Early election results favored Odinga before electoral authorities suddenly stopped the vote counting process and declared Kibaki the winner. Protests followed and turned violent, plunging the country into a deadly crisis that led to a power-sharing agreement and eventually a new constitution.

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Fighting split along ethnic lines in many parts of the country. Kenyatta, a supporter of Kibaki, was referred to the International Criminal Court along with other leaders for allegedly fueling the violence. All were eventually let go as some witnesses for the prosecution suddenly disappeared and the case fell apart. The 2012 election went on peacefully, but concerns about violence remain because of the lack of resolution a decade after the violence.

The Kenyan press were crucial during the post-election violence. Their stories and images brought the fighting to international attention. And investigative efforts helped uncover the role of Kenyan leaders in enabling the conflict. Eroding press freedom today make it difficult for the same reporters to inform the public ahead of the August election.

“We must stem the tide of increased violence and impunity against journalists in Kenya,” Henry Maina, regional director at Article 19 Eastern Africa, said in a statement. “No policy to address the situation can be successful if measures to prevent aggression against and to protect at-risk journalists are not accompanied with thorough and timely prosecutions of all crimes committed against them.”

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Tom Murphy

Tom Murphy is a New Hampshire-based reporter for Humanosphere. Before joining Humanosphere, Tom founded and edited the aid blog A View From the Cave. His work has appeared in Foreign Policy, the Huffington Post, the Guardian, GlobalPost and Christian Science Monitor. He tweets at @viewfromthecave. Contact him at tmurphy[at]humanosphere.org.