Kenyan tabloid editor jailed for libel

New York, March 8, 2007— A court in the capital Nairobi convicted Mburu Muchoki, editor of the private weekly The Independent, of libel on Tuesday and sentenced him to a year in prison over a 2004 story critical of Justice Minister Martha Karua, according to local journalists.

Muchoki was also fined 500,000 shillings (US$7,200)—twenty-five times the maximum allowable fine for libel, according to defense lawyer Nelson Oundun. Muchoki’s imprisonment contradicted a January 2005 pledge by the government to stop using archaic criminal laws for defamation matters, according to CPJ research.

“We condemn the imprisonment of Mburu Muchoki for writing critically on a widely reported scandal,” said CPJ Executive Director Joel Simon. “We call on the appeal court to overturn his conviction and urge authorities to uphold their pledge to abandon criminal defamation prosecutions.”

The charges were linked to a story covered extensively in the Kenyan press alleging an affair between Karua and a Catholic priest, according to local journalists. Karua never denied the allegations, they said. She won an earlier ruling against Muchoki for the same story, but the judgment of 25 million shillings (US$361,000) in civil damages was later invalidated because the prosecution did not follow proper procedure, according to Oundun.

Muchoki is planning to appeal the ruling, but Oundun said “unusual court delays in publishing the decision” allegedly linked to Karua’s influence, threatened to hinder his appeal efforts.

The Independent belongs to the so-called “alternative press” in Kenya, known for provocative reporting on sex and political scandals. In February 2006, Muchoki went into hiding after police raided the paper and detained a journalist.