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Journalists relieved, wary amid Kenyan elections

By Tom Rhodes/CPJ East Africa Consultant on March 5, 2013 4:46 PM ET

Journalists could be seen rushing from polling station to polling station Monday to see long queues of determined Kenyan voters in what was apparently a largely peaceful election, according to the Deputy Director of Kenya's statutory media council, Victor Bwire. But leading up to the vote, many journalists worked in a climate of fear; and many of them say they are still wary that, once results are in, they will face attacks and other challenges such as they experienced in the aftermath of the last presidential election in 2007.

"Remember, the violence came afterwards, during the election results, not the actual polling," Bwire told me. After the 2007 vote, violence amid disputed results and reports of vote-rigging killed more than 1,200 people and displaced approximately 600,000. Over 200 Kenyan journalists were affected, with many forced to flee their work due to fear of attack, according to the media council.

Today, with just under half the votes counted, Kenyans could only wait. Results are expected Wednesday following high voter turnout for the range of posts, including parliament members, senators, county governors, and members of 47 newly formed country assemblies. Many people fear that a run-off between presidential candidates could prolong the possibility of tension and violence.

Meanwhile, the media council has been mapping cases of threat or attack on an online platform, Media Freedom 254. "It was something that I have been thinking about since 2009 when one of our reporters, Francis Nyaruri was killed," the council's safety and protection for journalists coordinator, Ephraim Muchemi, told me. So far this year the site has reported 14 cases, most of which involved suspicions by authorities or voters that journalists harboured a political agenda of their own.

On Saturday, paramilitary police attacked a correspondent for the daily Star in Homa Bay Town, western Kenya, and confiscated his camera. Correspondent Habil Onyango was trying to take pictures of a dispute between supporters of two rival candidates, he told me. The paramilitary police, known as the General Service Unit (GSU), were called in to quell the violence. "But instead they started beating up innocent people and they did not like me taking their photo," according to Onyango and local reports. Supporters of one of the politicians accused Onyango and his colleagues of taking sides and said they were "marked men." Onyango said, "Now my colleagues are afraid to cover the elections and none have confidence that the police will protect them. A police spokesman told The People that he would investigate.

Another Star reporter, Kirimi Miruthi, had to relocate after he reported that two election aspirants in Meru, central Kenya, had bribed teachers with 700,000 Kenyan Shillings (US$8,400) to support their campaign. Anonymous text messages and threatening phone calls from the supporters of one of the political aspirants, Kiraitu Murungi, ensued soon after the report was released.  Even worse, Murungi announced in a memo the following day that he would suspend journalists from covering his activities, according to local reports. Star Chief Editor Catherine Gicheru said she would ignore the directive. "He cannot chase people out of a public function--as long as he is in a public place we will cover him," she told me.

Foreign correspondents, although none have reported being directly threatened, have also been accused of harboring hidden agendas. As early as December, government spokesman Muthui Kariuki accused foreign media in a statement of "malicious perspectives" that are "fake, revisionist and malevolent on top of being reckless," without providing further details. In a press conference with the Foreign Correspondents Association of East Africa, the spokesman accused journalists of inciting "fires" during the post-election violence of 2007-08 and that "we will set you on fire before you set us on fire". Kariuki told me afterwards that his words were misrepresented and that he meant that if the press incites problems "we will all burn together."

On Sunday, government officials met with CNN representatives after claiming a CNN story on a militia in Eldoret was fabricated, producer Lilliam Leposa told me. Kariuki told local media that he had a "friendly meeting" with the anchor, Nima Elbagir, but "hiding under the cloak of source confidentiality, she didn't tell me where those militias are training." Kenya's active Internet users also condemned the report. "Loving how Kenyan people are standing up against sensational journalism and false reports about Africa" one person tweeted using the popular hashtag #SomeoneTellCNN. "We wanted to reflect the reality that many [human rights] organizations have been concerned about," Elbagir tweeted in her defense. "People are scared and this is how some are dealing with that fear. I understand though that this was a difficult watch." So far, while people have tweeted their outrage over CNN's "hidden agendas" and "lies," no one has as yet pointed out factual errors in the report.

Another touchy area has been the Kenyan government's efforts to quell hate speech prior to the elections. Kenya's National Steering Committee on Media Monitoring has been working around the clock to ensure both broadcasters and social media refrain from inciting violence, particularly with ethnically sensitive commentary. Their efforts are necessary. A recent report by the Kenya National Commission on Human Rights said there were "widespread use of social media, especially Facebook, to spew out hatred on the basis of ethnicity and political affiliation." But William Oloo Janak, head of the Kenya Correspondent's Association, is wary of the possibility of the ban on hate speech turning into censorship. "What they define as hate speech is vague, often a term just to sweep sensitive information under the carpet," he said. Robert Kunga, the chief operating officer of the Bloggers Association of Kenya, told me that bloggers have had "a lot less content come out on the elections for fear of being targeted as hate speech."

In one example, Makua Mutua, dean at SUNY Buffalo Law School and Daily Nation columnist, expressed in a January 5 opinion piece his fears that losing Kenyan election candidates may not concede defeat. The Kenyan government was quick to label the piece "unpatriotic" and "garbage" without actually disputing Mutua's views, according to a retort in the daily. "I don't deny that there's hate speech, and that it's extremely dangerous in an ethnically polarized society like Kenya. Hate speakers, including virulent bloggers, must be tracked down and prosecuted," Mutua wrote. "[But] nor should anti-hate speech campaigns be used to silence opponents--or proponents--of certain politicians or political groups."

On the whole, though, most journalists concur that the media and authorities alike have handled this election far better than that of 2007.  Back in 2008, Editor's Guild Chairman Macharia Gaitho told me back that the media essentially "failed" the public when political stability collapsed. But this failure was partly due to the violent tactics used by authorities. Former KTN cameraman Clifford Derrick had to flee the country after attempting to cover vote-rigging and remains in exile. "I will not be coming home for this election because it reminds me of what I went through five years ago," he told me via email. "In fact I feel the sensation of the torture I endured in the hands of security forces whenever I read of journalists beaten up by the same people in Kenya."

So far--due in part to efforts by the government and civil society to maintain peace--it appears the tragedies of 2007-08 will not be repeated. The new constitution has also played a role in stability, since it reconfigures political power in Kenya to limit excessive executive control.

If violence against the press does occur, however, CPJ is partnering up with the Media Council and Rory Peck Trust to support a journalist hotline in case of emergency in the days ahead. Let us hope the phone lines remain silent.


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