Attacks on the Press 2000: Kenya

EVEN AS KENYAN POLITICS WERE DOMINATED BY CALLS for constitutional and legal reform, the government introduced restrictive legislation governing the press.

In May, the government of President Daniel arap Moi proposed an amendment to the Books and Newspapers Act that would have required new publications to post a bond of one million shillings (US$13,459) as security against fines that might be imposed in future legal proceedings. This represented a hundred-fold increase over the previous bond of 10,000 shillings (US$135).

The proposed amendment also held distributors and vendors of publications responsible for violations of the act. As a result, any person who distributed a publication that had not paid the bond would be liable for fines up to 20,000 shillings (US$269), imprisonment for up to six months, or both, even if they were unaware that the bond had not been paid.

The bill was apparently drafted in response to the perceived threat of an emerging tabloid press that specializes in gossipy exposés about politicians and prominent business people. The higher bond might have made it easier for a plaintiff to collect on a libel judgment, but local journalists also viewed it as an attempt to stifle anti-government journalism by deterring new publications from entering the market and making vendors wary of new magazines and newspapers. After much critical discussion of the amendment in the Kenyan press, the bill was shelved.

Last year, there were 13 private radio stations broadcasting around the country, widening a trend that began in 1996, when the government first started licensing independent broadcasters. At first the licenses were restricted to a carefully selected group of government supporters, but this changed in 1999, when the government issued broadcast licenses to the independent Nation Group. Several other individuals and companies applied for and were granted licenses. None of the new stations, however, had the national reach of the state-owned Kenya Broadcasting Corporation (KBC), and all were granted licenses that sharply restricted their geographical range.

The year 2000 saw the launch of Kenya’s first vernacular-language private radio stations The largest of these stations, Kameme FM, was started up in February, broadcasting mainly in the widely-spoken Kikuyu language, and became an immediate hit. Restricted in range to Nairobi, Central Province and parts of Rift Valley and Eastern provinces, it nevertheless managed to attract both listeners and advertisers, drawing revenue away from the KBC.

On August 31, President Moi declared that private vernacular broadcasting promoted “tribal chauvinism and undermined national unity.” Arguing that the KBC already broadcast in the country’s main vernacular languages, Moi directed his information minister and attorney general to draft legislation that would force radio stations to broadcast only in the two national languages, English and Kiswahili. After a public uproar, the matter was raised in Parliament on October 4, where the information minister stated that the government had no intention of banning vernacular radio broadcasts. “Vernaculars are part of [Kenyan] culture and there is nothing we can do about them,” the minister said, to applause from both sides of the House.

On October 8, however, Moi again announced his intention to silence private vernacular radio. Singling out Kameme FM, the president argued that “ethnic” radio stations could be misused to incite anarchy and genocide, as happened in Rwanda. The following month, KBC opened a Kikuyu-language service in Central Province.

Meanwhile, Kenyan journalists continued to be tried under a variety of archaic laws, such as the colonial-era Official Secrets Act, the Sedition Laws, and Section 181 of the Penal Code, which covers the production, distribution, and exhibition of obscene materials. Despite the Penal Code’s vague definition of obscenity, the editor of Emotions magazine, which apparently features “suggestive pictures of scantily clad women,” was charged with publishing and distributing pornographic material.

Kenya lacks clear guidelines and regulations governing the Internet, satellite broadcasting, and other new media technologies. In 2000, President Moi called for tighter state oversight of Internet content, especially on the Web sites of local independent newspapers. And in September, the Communications Commission of Kenya seized satellite equipment installed by the Reuters news agency in Nairobi, allegedly because Reuters was operating without a license from Telkom Kenya, the state telecommunications company.

Jackson Ngugi, East African Standard
Stephen Mwei, Nation Media Group Television

Ngugi and Mwei, both Nairobi-based journalists, were assaulted and robbed during a violent clash between two opposing groups of student activists on the campus of the University of Nairobi. Ngugi, a photographer for the East African Standard, was knocked unconscious with a stone and sustained serious head injuries. He also lost his camera in the melee.

Mwei, a reporter for Nation Media Group Television, lost 3000 shillings (US$20) during the attack. His video equipment was briefly confiscated by student activists. According to Kenyan journalists, the head of the Nairobi University student association promised to return Mwei’s equipment on condition that the Nation Media Group TV not air coverage unfavorable to Raila Odinga, the chairman of a parliamentary commission set up to revise Kenya’s constitution.

The students justified their attack by claiming that the two journalists were campaigning against the proposed revision of the constitution.

Ngugi was treated at Nairobi Hospital for several hours, then released. He went back to work the next day.

Vitalis Musebe, The People
Mukalo wa Kwayera, The People

Musebe, managing editor of the independent daily The People, and wa Kwayera, the paper’s news editor, were arrested after publishing an article on discontent among Kenyan military personnel.

The two journalists were charged under the Official Secrets Act-a relic of the colonial era-with distributing information “prejudicial to the safety of the state, [and] calculated to be directly or indirectly useful to a disaffected person.” They faced up to 14 years in prison if convicted.

The article, quoting military sources, alleged that the armed forces were on high alert against internal rebellion. The day after it appeared, Musebe and Kwayera were called into the headquarters of the Criminal Investigation Department (CID) in Nairobi, where they were arrested and questioned before being released on bail.

Lawyers for Musebe and Kwayera subsequently appealed to the High Court, challenging the application of the Official Secrets Act, which they said contravened Kenya’s constitutional guarantee of freedom of the press

At the appeal hearing on September 26, a series of postponements ensued; at press time, the appeals court had not yet ruled on the case.

Johann Wandetto, The People

A local magistrate’s court sentenced Wandetto, a reporter for the daily newspaper The People, based in Kitale, Rift Valley Province, to 18 months in prison.

Wandetto was charged with publishing an “alarmist report” in which he alleged that a unit of the elite Presidential Guards had been ambushed by militiamen in the remote West Pokot area of Kenya. The article appeared in the February 6, 1999 edition of The People.

Presidential Guard witnesses denied the story.

On February 15, Wandetto was arrested by Criminal Investigation Department detectives in connection with another article [date unavailable] in which he wrote that the minister of energy, Francis Lotodo, had called for a posthumous trial of Kenya’s first president, Jomo Kenyatta, for alleged crimes committed during his presidency. (The minister denied calling for such a trial.)

When Wandetto appeared in court to enter a plea regarding this second case, the magistrate abruptly announced his sentence in the Presidential Guards case, even though the sentencing hearing was not scheduled to take place until February 18.

Wandetto was then charged with publishing false news in the Lotodo story. He spent a week in jail on the first charge, and was then released on a 50,000 shillings (US$683) bond. Minister Lotodo testified on March 27. To date, there has been no ruling on the second case, and Lotodo has since died.

CPJ protested the prison sentence in a February 23 letter to Attorney General Amos Wako. On June 13, Wandetto’s lawyers appealed Wandetto’s conviction to the High Court. The journalist was freed on bail pending his appeal, which had not yet been heard at year’s end.

On December 2, Wandetto and Leonard Wekesa, another The People reporter in Kitale, were arrested for writing a November 23 story alleging that Lotodo’s body had been secretly exhumed and transferred to a bunker. They had not been formally charged at press time.

Victor Nzuma, The Nation

Nzuma, a reporter with the independent Nairobi daily The Nation, was attacked by two policemen while taking pictures of police arresting shareholders of the Mavoloni Company Limited, who were involved in a land dispute with the company. While the two policemen attempted to wrestle his camera away from him, Nzuma was nearly hit by a vehicle in oncoming traffic. The two police officers also threatened to shoot the journalist. The officers briefly detained Nzuma, and confiscated his camera. He was later released and his camera returned.

Amos Majusi,
The People
Vincent Maluti, The People

Majusi and Maluti, two journalists from the daily newspaper The People, were arrested at their publication’s regional office in Kakamega and taken to the local police headquarters.

The two reporters were interrogated for several hours about a June 10 article which alleged that police officers in Malava, a small rural town in western Kenya, had sexually assaulted three local women on May 24.

The two journalists were detained for nine hours after being interrogated. It was not until their editors phoned to protest that the journalists were released. According to their colleagues, Majusi and Maluti were asked to print a retraction and confess to publishing false information, but they maintained that their reporting was accurate.

Upon their release on June 12, Majusi and Maluti were asked to report to investigating officers at the Criminal Investigation Division in Kakamega. They appeared on the morning of June 13 and were again subjected to a daylong interrogation before being released.

The Nation

Angry students from the Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology stormed the downtown Nairobi offices of the independent daily The Nation. The mob violence followed a Nation article alleging that drug abuse was rampant on the university campus.

Chanting “Nation must go!” the students threw rocks through the ground floor windows of the Nation Ad Center, headquarters of The Nation media group. They then threw paraffin-soaked tires into the building and started a fire. The fire was quickly extinguished. However, some observers blamed police for failing to prevent the rampage.

Students stoned passersby and smashed the windows of several cars parked in front of The Nation Center. A Reuters photographer was roughed up by students, who mistook him for a Nation staffer. The students were later dispersed by riot police.

Samuel Nduati, Citizen Radio

Two gunmen shot Nduati dead in the entryway of his home in Nairobi. A veteran journalist who had moved to Citizen Radio from the Nation group of newspapers, Nduati was watching television with his family when they heard a disturbance at the front door. When his wife went to investigate, she was confronted by two armed men who ordered her back into the house. Nduati was shot in the chest when he came out to find his wife. He died on the spot.

The intruders stole money, a television, a VCR, stereo equipment, and some clothes. Police classified the crime as a robbery that ended in murder, but local journalists suspected the slaying could have been connected to Kenya’s volatile coffee industry.

Nduati, an experienced business editor, had covered corruption scandals at the Coffee Board of Kenya, a government monopoly that buys the entire coffee harvest from Kenyan farmers and then markets it to the world. Disputes over control of the coffee industry have turned violent in recent years, with at least one head of a coffee cooperative dying in mysterious circumstances.

Mburu Mucoki, Emotions
Wallace Wang’ombe Mutahi, Emotions
Chrispin Oluoch Aketch, Emotions

The Nairobi chief magistrate charged Mucoki, publisher of Emotions magazine, with publishing obscene pictures with intent to corrupt morals. Emotions vendors Mutahi and Aketch were charged with possession of obscene materials with intent to distribute. The three were granted bond of 100,000 shillings (US$1272).

Local sources described the offending material as “suggestive pictures of scantily clad women.”

All three men were charged under Section 81 of the Penal Code, which covers the production, distribution and exhibition of obscene materials. If convicted, they face up to two years in prison and a fine of 7000 shillings (US$90). Their case was still pending at year’s end.

Betty Dindi, Kenya National Television

Police chased Kenya National Television reporter Dindi out of a farming cooperative shareholder meeting that she was covering and beat her with batons in the groin, limbs, and head.

Along with other journalists, Dindi was attending a shareholder meeting of the Mbo-I-Kamiti Farmers Co-operative Society in Kiambu, just outside Nairobi. The meeting turned rowdy, and police dispersed the crowd.

After the beating, Dindi sought refuge in a farmhouse, whereupon police threatened to force her out using tear gas. Her colleagues finally managed to get her to hospital, where she was treated and discharged.

The journalist’s initial attempt to lodge a complaint was rebuffed at Kiambu’s divisional police headquarters. However, she eventually recorded a statement on January 3, 2001. The Kiambu police chief promised to launch an investigation.