‘Secret’ presidential meeting lands Kenyan journalists in custody

New York, February 28, 2006—Police detained three journalists with the independent East African Standard for questioning today in connection with a story of political intrigue that ran in Saturday’s edition, the paper’s chief executive officer, Tom Mshindi, told the Committee to Protect Journalists. The weekend edition’s managing director, Chaacha Mwita, sub-editor Dennis Onyango, and reporter Ayub Savula were still in police custody at the end of the day, although no formal complaint had been brought against the paper or charges filed against the journalists, Mshindi said.

The detentions stem from an article headlined “Kalonzo, Kibaki in secret meeting,” which claimed that President Mwai Kibaki had held a secret meeting with Kalonzo Musyoka, a member of parliament from the ruling NARC coalition. Musyoka was one of several cabinet ministers fired from their positions after they campaigned against Kibaki’s controversial draft constitution, which was defeated in a referendum in November 2005. The Standard reported that “the former minister is said to have expressed a readiness to rejoin the government and take the vice president’s slot,” and called the meeting “one of the most sophisticated political maneuvers by the president yet.”

“If you detain reporters and editors for routine political coverage, you’re essentially criminalizing journalism itself,” said Ann Cooper, executive director of CPJ. “We call on authorities to release our colleagues immediately and unconditionally, and ensure that the Kenyan press is free to report on political developments without such intimidation.”

Kalonzo and the government issued denials after the story was published, and government spokesman Alfred Mutua followed up with a statement calling for the reporters and editor to be punished, the Standard reported. On Sunday, Information and Communications Minister Mutahi Kagwe said he would ask the attorney general and police to take action against the newspaper, according to local news reports.

A local independent media regulatory body, the Media Council, summoned Chaacha to appear before its Ethics and Complaints Commission on Thursday. Mshindi told CPJ that the Media Council was the appropriate body to handle any complaints against the newspaper.

Ezekiel Mutua, secretary-general of the Kenya Union of Journalists, told CPJ that the government was using the story as an excuse to harass the Standard, which has run a series of critical articles targeting the president and other members of government.