Attacks on the Press 2004: Kenya


The government of President Mwai Kibaki, whose December 2002 election ended 24 years of rule by the Kenya African National Union (KANU) party, struggled in 2004 to keep its election promises of ending corruption and boosting the economy. It failed to meet deadlines for adopting a new constitution, which Kibaki’s National Rainbow Coalition (NARC) had promised to introduce within 100 days of taking office. Wrangling continued at year’s end over the new constitution, which had still not been introduced.

With the government under attack from Kenya’s feisty and diverse media, authorities showed some worrying signs of intolerance toward the press. Despite some government moves to end human rights abuses in the country, CPJ has learned that a journalist was jailed in the western part of the country for 11 months on spurious charges.

Peter Makori, a freelance journalist based in the town of Kisii, in western Kenya, was arrested, charged with murdering two local chiefs, and detained from July 2003 to May 2004 without trial. He told CPJ he was tortured when security agents tried to get him to confess to the killings. The journalist was finally freed after the attorney general dismissed the case and the High Court ordered his release. Makori believes that local officials conspired to keep him in detention because of his reports alleging rape and murder by a local militia group, which was supported by the local district commissioner. Some of these reports were broadcast on BBC Radio just before his arrest in June 2003. He had also been investigating corruption by local officials at the time of his arrest.

Several Kenyan human rights organizations took up Makori’s case. The Kenya Union of Journalists (KUJ) told CPJ it believes that Makori’s detention was linked to his journalistic work, and that it is investigating the case.

Another criminal case against a journalist continued in 2004. In September 2003, The Sunday Standard published leaked excerpts of confessions to the police by suspects in the murder of Dr. Crispin Odhiambo Mbai, who headed a key committee at Kenya’s Constitutional Review Conference. Mbai was killed on September 14, 2003, in what some believe was a political assassination. Sunday Standard Managing Editor David Makali was detained for two days in 2003 and charged, along with a police officer, with stealing a police videotape. The newspaper, whose original article about the confessions referred to a police report, not tapes, denies that it ever had a police videotape. Makali has pleaded not guilty.

The charge was later changed to theft of a copy of a tape, and Makali was also charged with handling stolen property, an offense punishable by up to seven years in prison. On September 9, 2004, after hearing six prosecution witnesses, the chief magistrate handling the case ruled that Makali must also bring witnesses in his defense. This order came despite the fact that none of the prosecution witnesses could confirm that the “stolen” tape even existed, according to local press reports, and police never recovered a tape. Many local journalists say the trial is politically motivated and designed to intimidate the press.

In another move that worried press freedom advocates, Information Minister Raphael Tuju created an advisory panel in March to probe complaints against broadcast media outlets, including a leading independent radio station, Kiss FM 100. The move came after Water Resources Minister Martha Karua filed a civil defamation suit against the station and two of its presenters who criticized her on air after she refused them an interview. Many feared that the panel was a way to protect government members from media scrutiny and give official censorship a veneer of respectability.

Initially, leading media representatives–such as KUJ Secretary-General Ezekiel Mutua, Nation Media Group Chief Executive Wilfred Kiboro, and East African Standard Managing Director Tom Mshindi–participated in the panel. But all three soon quit. Mutua said the government wanted to use the panel to muzzle the press and to shutter Kiss FM, which is known for criticizing government officials. In July, a court blocked the government from receiving and acting upon a report from the advisory panel, saying that Tuju had acted outside his powers in creating the panel. The court decision came in response to legal action by Kiss FM. As a result of the ruling, the panel is no longer operational.

The government also introduced a bill to regulate broadcast media in Kenya but shelved it after protests from media owners and local journalists. Provisions would have banned companies from owning more than one type of media outlet, which would have hurt Kenya’s major media holding groups. KUJ Secretary-General Mutua told CPJ that the Media Industry Stakeholder Council–which has representatives from all media sectors and includes the journalists union–is taking steps to revive a self-regulatory body for journalists, known as the Media Council. Council members held a first meeting in November.

Authorities moved to clamp down on so-called scandal sheets, publications that carry gossip about celebrities and other public figures, as well as critical political analysis and exposés of alleged misdeeds by politicians. In January, police raided newsstands in the capital, Nairobi, and other cities, confiscating thousands of copies of several scandal sheets and detaining up to 20 vendors who had been selling the papers. Police also raided the printing press of The Independent and seized equipment. Leading up to the crackdown, Attorney General Amos Wako accused the publications of violating the repressive Books and Newspapers Act, which the ruling party had promised during the 2002 election campaign to scrap. According to KUJ Secretary-General Mutua, at least some of the targeted publications had registered and were operating in compliance with the law.

Local journalists told CPJ they believe that the confiscations and arrests were linked to the publications’ content. They said the decision to target the publications might have been provoked by stories about Kibaki’s personal life, or by reports detailing alleged government corruption. The KUJ condemned the raid as an attack on press freedom.

In September, masked men who reportedly claimed to be plainclothes police officers raided the Nairobi offices of two scandal sheets, The Independent and the Weekly Citizen, taking computers and printing equipment. Police denied knowledge of the raids, and the equipment was not returned. However, reports in the mainstream press said that a branch of the police known as Administration Police had conducted the raids. Weekly Citizen Editor Tom Alwaka said that prior to the raids, he had received anonymous telephone calls asking if he “had a story” about a sensitive report from a government-commissioned inquiry into corrupt land allocation. Alwaka told the independent daily The Nation that the caller offered him a large sum of money not to carry the story, but he told the caller he did not have it.

Reluctant at first to support the alternative press, the mainstream media have nevertheless rallied to their defense. The Nation said in a September editorial that, “The salacious and sensational stories often featured in what some refer to as the ‘alternative press’ may not be to everyone’s taste, but we remain convinced that in the interests of press freedom, we should be robust in out support for our fellow journalists.”