Attacks on the Press 2002: Kenya

On December 30, opposition National Rainbow Coalition (NARC) leader Emilio Mwai Kibaki won Kenya’s landmark presidential election with an enormous majority, replacing Daniel arap Moi, who, after 24 years in power, was barred by a new constitution from seeking another term. Because the elections were the toughest challenge ever to Kenya’s ruling African National Union (KANU), in power since independence in 1963, the poll dominated the news.

Kibaki’s NARC won 126 out of 210 seats in Parliament; Moi’s KANU, now led by defeated presidential hopeful Uhuru Kenyatta, saw its share shrink to 63. A third party, the little-known Forum for the Restoration of Democracy-People, took 14 seats.

Politicians and the public complained about the election coverage, citing bias in both state-owned and independent media. According to a report by the independent Media Institute, which is based in the capital, Nairobi, KANU received a disproportionate amount of coverage on all television stations, but especially on the state-owned Kenya Broadcasting Corporation (KBC), the only station licensed to broadcast nationwide. Even after opposition politicians complained, KBC continued its pro-KANU coverage, blacking out opposition rallies and speeches.

KBC’s long-standing role as a government mouthpiece endangered its employees in pro-opposition areas; the independent Daily Nation quoted an unnamed KBC source as saying, “We cannot send our equipment to the [opposition] rally and risk having it destroyed.” His fears were well founded: KBC staffers were harassed, beaten, and assaulted on numerous occasions by rioting students and opposition-party supporters.

In a first for Kenya–and a coup for the independent Nation Television–all presidential candidates agreed to a series of live television appearances on a show called “Face the People,” during which they answered questions from a studio audience. The candidates also agreed to the country’s first-ever televised presidential debate, making Kenya the second country in Africa (after Ghana) to hold such an event. The debates were later canceled without explanation. The media also continued to use the Internet, with the two main dailies, The Daily Nation and the East African Standard, competing to update their Web sites with breaking news. In its annual financial report, issued in November, the Nation Media Group said the online edition of its flagship Daily Nation newspaper received more than 1 million hits per day.

In May, before the presidential campaign intensified, Attorney General Amos Wako once again introduced a controversial and repressive media bill in Parliament, the Statute Law (Miscellaneous Amendments) Bill. The measure, introduced in several incarnations since its initial appearance in 2000, has been met each time with hostility and fierce criticism from lawmakers, unions, and the press. The bill increases 100-fold the fee publishers must pay to insure against losses they may incur from libel or defamation suits, from 10,000 shillings (US$126) to 1 million shillings (US$12,605). Publishers who fail to post the fee face fines totaling 1 million shillings, a three-year jail sentence, or both. In addition, distributors and vendors of publications that have not paid the fee can be fined as much as 20,000 shillings (US$252), imprisoned for up to six months, or both. Publishers fear that these provisions will intimidate vendors into refusing to sell certain publications and could force several small newspapers to close.

President Moi signed the legislation on June 4. Claiming the bill violates Section 79 of the Kenyan Constitution, which guarantees freedom of expression, the local news agency Kenya Eye News Service immediately challenged the law and sought to bring the case before the Constitutional Court. The case remained pending at year’s end.

The independent media faced other formidable enemies. In March, Cabinet minister Nicholas Biwott was awarded 20 million shillings (US$258,000) in a defamation suit he had filed against The People newspaper for publishing an article accusing him of corruption. Biwott has so far won four libel cases; the March ruling brought his total awards to 60 million shillings (US$773,000).

Meanwhile, the government admitted liability in the case of photojournalist Wallace Gichere, who was pushed out of a window by police officers in 1991 for allegedly writing damaging stories about Kenya for the foreign press. Gichere, who was paralyzed by the fall, sued the state for damages and went on a hunger strike to protest the government’s lack of action on his case. On July 17, almost 10 years after the attack, Attorney General Wako said that although the government admitted liability, Gichere’s claim for compensation was excessive. (Government sources say the journalist is asking for US$3.25 million.) Wako suggested that a court assess damages.

June 7

Weekly Citizen

Kenyan High Court judge Andrew Hayanga issued a temporary injunction forbidding the Weekly Citizen, a tabloid known for salacious reporting, and its vendors from continuing to distribute the June 3-9 issue until a libel suit filed by businessman Sunil Behal is heard and resolved, according to Kenyan news reports. The case remained pending at year’s end.

August 9

Njehu Gatabaki, Finance

Gatabaki, publisher of the monthly magazine Finance, was convicted of publishing an “alarming report” and sentenced to six months in jail by Senior Principal Magistrate Wanjiru Karanja. The case stemmed from a December 1997 report in the magazine alleging that President Daniel arap Moi was responsible for ethnic clashes that had plagued parts of Rift Valley Province in the early 1990s.

In her sentencing, Karanja called the article “irresponsible and alarming journalism” that “should and must be discouraged.” Gatabaki was taken into custody after the sentencing. On August 12, he was transferred to a maximum-security prison outside the Kenyan capital, Nairobi. Gatabaki was pardoned and released on August 14 by presidential decree.