Omwa Ombara left Kenya for the United States. (CPJ)
Omwa Ombara left Kenya for the United States. (CPJ)

Forced to flee false perceptions, ICC, and Kenyan press

EDITOR’S NOTE: February 15, 2014 marked one year since Omwa Ombara arrived in the U.S. to seek political asylum after attempts on her life in Kenya between May and December 2012. She fled her native land after being contacted by International Criminal Court (ICC) investigators probing the violence that followed the Kenyan elections in 2007-2008, in which more than 1,000 people were killed, according to news reports. Ombara was never a witness, nor did she ever meet any ICC investigators, but the mere suspicion that she was participating in the ICC process prompted a spate of threats. She describes her own ordeal and the culture of silence that has settled over most of the Kenyan media. CPJ’s Journalist Assistance program supported Ombara throughout her ordeal.

As the world watches the efforts of the ICC to prosecute Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta, his deputy William Ruto, and journalist Joshua Sang for post-election violence in Kenya, few realize the repercussions for those of us perceived to have been witnesses. Nowadays in Kenya, even the word “witness” has been tagged with such a hostile connotation that one had rather not use it.

Anyone who attempts to say anything they know about the infamous post-election violence in Kenya in 2007-2008 risks being branded an “unpatriotic traitor,” whistleblowers who want to reveal Kenyan society’s “dirty secrets”–they can lose their lives at any time.

Many Kenyans do not want to believe that among prosecutor Fatou Bensouda’s list of Kenyan witnesses, some could be real and deserve a chance to be heard. It is as if a political spell has been cast on the Kenyan people. Some Kenyan journalists too have caught the conspiracy bug, while some have been bewitched into emotional propaganda reporting, or dazed into silence.  Most have lost their tongues and pens.

Indeed post-election violence did take place and those of us who were reporters in the field covered both the election campaign and the violence. The lack of balanced reporting is a big failure in the journalism fraternity. Political wolves hound those who will testify as well as those they think might enter the witness box, ready to dismiss any account that could put the politicians they support on the spot. And while this happens, the Kenyan media continue to run with the crowd. There is hardly any analytical reporting on The Hague trials, merely a regurgitation of a dangerous public chorus. Instead, the Kenyan media focus on the apparent failures of witnesses and the prosecution.

I arrived in the U.S. a year ago to seek political asylum after attempts on my life in Kenya between May and December 2012.

A mere phone call in May 2012 from an investigator from the International Criminal Court (ICC) changed my life and put me in danger. I was never a witness nor did I ever meet any Hague investigators but some people somewhere in government perceived that I was one and from there the intimidation started. People I believe to be state agents not only followed my every move, but also tried to abduct me twice–in the capital, Nairobi, and the western city of Kisumu. Some men in plainclothes went to homes of my relatives demanding to know my whereabouts. They hacked my e-mails and blocked my phones. I immediately went into witness protection and contacted the Committee to Protect Journalists.

The Hague investigator wanted to discuss an interview I had done in 2008 with an investigative journalist regarding corruption by both media and politicians. The story was later published in a local magazine called Expression Today under the title “Dirty Hands” by Otsieno Namwaya. They were interested in candid comments I made about corruption in the media while I was the Standard‘s bureau chief in the coastal city of Mombasa. Corruption in the media involved incidences where individual reporters and editors accepted bribes either in kind, cash, or gifts from certain politicians to have their stories captured favorably. This practice is common among journalists and politicians in East Africa. This interview was about some media coverage in 2007, prior to the Kenya’s chaotic elections, and touched on some politicians who the ICC later had an interest in prosecuting.

Being perceived to be a witness put my life in danger. In an effort to escape from my pursuers I fled from one part of the country to another. I tried to hide. Walking in the streets, in dark shadows waiting for a shot in my back any moment was one of the scariest experiences I have ever had.

With the help of the Committee to Protect Journalists’ Nairobi and New York offices, and witness protection agencies, I escaped by the skin of my teeth. A driver in an unmarked car not only tried to knock me down as I waited for a taxi in Kisumu, but just moments after I had served dinner and sat to eat in Nairobi, a white unmarked car with four men tried to abduct me from my house. I jumped out of my back window and fled. Being under protection meant a humble monthly allowance of 20,000 Kenyan shillings (US$231) a month, far below my monthly income of 120, 000 to 150,000 shillings (US$1,300-$1,700) that I made while working.

But today is an exciting day for me. As I sit in my room, awaiting my asylum interview, I toast to my freedom. I live in the inner city. I have moved from a shelter where I lived for the past six months. The winter chill is biting and everyone is in a hoodie. I watch the fierce winter snowstorm through my window. But I am not afraid of it. I do not even feel the cold weather everyone is complaining about. The warmth of safety emanating from my heart keeps me warm and safe and that is all I feel now. Living in a small neighborhood in the city is a unique experience, something akin to living in the rural villages of Kenya, where everyone knows everyone’s business and is always friendly and ready to assist.

I miss home–no Kenyan should feel more entitled to citizenship than another. Those who cast the stones at real and perceived witnesses have never had a phone call from The Hague asking them to be a witness. They have never worn the shoes of being in the middle of a bloodthirsty emotive crowd and Hague investigators. Like mourners at a funeral who cry louder than the bereaved and eat the chunkiest meat, they are nothing but actors who feel nothing for the dead or the bereaved. If they truly loved Kenya they would have come up with the truth by now.

I am a product, or should that be a casualty, of investigative journalism; that secretive world of bringing things that happen in darkness to light. A world that is often wrought with danger, something akin to being on the war front, and few journalists opt for this dangerous and narrow road. Some are shot dead after exposing crime, corruption, and other evils in society. Some are declared enemies of the state, while some become enemies of the very society they are trying to protect. It is a risky job and definitely not for the fainthearted.

Freedom of expression still remains elusive in Kenya as real witnesses are denied a chance to give evidence in court through threats and intimidation. Kenyan media need to support the work of investigative journalists–to nurture society’s watchdog and restore its image as the Fourth Estate. With investigative journalists who do not fear exposing the truth, the circus going on at The Hague now would long have been put to rest.