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Campaign posters for local candidates are attached to pole in Nakuru. Several journalists say they have been threatened or attacked while covering the run up to Kenya's August 8 elections. (Reuters/Baz Ratner)

Amid tensions ahead of Kenyan vote, journalists face violence and threats

By Muthoki Mumo/CPJ East Africa Correspondent on August 7, 2017 12:52 PM ET

When a fight broke out during a political rally for Kenya's Orange Democratic Movement in Kakamega county on May 4, Shaban Makokha was taking pictures for his newspaper, the Daily Nation. Makokha told CPJ that when police arrived to break up the fight, they demanded that he stop taking pictures, even after he identified himself as a journalist. He said that he was beaten by the officers and detained for two hours.

Makokha's experience is not unusual among journalists covering the run up to Kenya's general elections, which are scheduled for tomorrow. Eight Kenyan journalists with whom CPJ spoke say they have been assaulted, intimidated, or threatened since April while covering election campaigns. Authorities in recent months have also imposed restrictions on reporting and social media use. "Being harassed is becoming like a normal thing," said Makokha.

Makokha's attack was the third time within a month that journalists were harassed or threatened at Orange Democratic Movement and Jubilee rallies and meetings in Kakamega county. Erick Oduor, secretary-general of Kenya Union of Journalists, told CPJ he has received at least two reports per week of journalist harassment over the past few months, and said that he thinks many more cases go unreported.

An August 3 press statement from six media rights groups cited the failure to investigate and prosecute attacks on the press as one of the challenges facing journalists in Kenya. In Makokha's case, Peter Kattam, the commanding officer of the Mumias police division, told CPJ that the incident has been forwarded to the director of public prosecutions for advice.

Although voting in 2013 was relatively peaceful compared with the violence after the 2007 elections, media reports indicate that the National Cohesion and Integration Commission, a body that promotes unity in Kenya, and the European Union Election Observation Mission to Kenya have both warned that this election could be marred by violence. The government has also identified what it describes as potential hot spots for violence around the country. Journalists who spoke to CPJ say they believe they will be vulnerable to attack in these areas.

Tensions are high following a polarizing campaign between the two leading presidential candidates--incumbent Uhuru Kenyatta of the Jubilee Party and Raila Odinga of the National Super Alliance (NASA), a coalition of parties that includes the Orange Democratic Movement. Pollsters predict it will be a close race. An attack on Deputy President William Ruto's home on July 29 and the killing of Chris Msando, an election official in charge of IT for Kenya's Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission, have added to the sense of tension.

The electoral commission told CPJ that it was working with the police to ensure the safety of all individuals at Kenya's polling centers, including the 4,500 journalists accredited to cover the elections. Minister for Information Joe Mucheru, echoed these statements, telling CPJ that any special security for journalists would have to be requested by the news outlets themselves.

Charles Kerich, chairman of the industry regulator, Media Council of Kenya, told CPJ that harassment of journalists is common during elections when politicians become "hyper sensitive."

Tom Mshindi, editor-in-chief of the Nation Media Group, added, "The price for both parties is really high and therefore the guy who sits between there with the megaphone is in danger. And that is probably what we're seeing."

Journalists have already been caught up in the dangerous middle ground described by Mshindi.

A reporter, a cameraman and a photographer from MediaMax, a network owned by President Kenyatta's family, were injured in January after a crowd hurled stones at the governor's convoy during a political event, according to reports.

Winnie Atieno, a journalist based in Mombasa, said that police threatened her and confiscated her phone while she was covering the primaries in Jomvu on April 22. She told CPJ that security officials wanted her to stop filming skirmishes. Peter Omanwa, commanding officer of Changamwe police, told CPJ that police questioned officers on duty that day, but have not yet identified who confiscated the phone, or what happened to the device.

Reports to the Kenya Union of Journalists indicate that journalists are increasingly targeted with reprisal action for their stories, such as attacks, arbitrary arrests, and threatening phone calls. "In this situation you see someone coming specifically for a journalist saying, 'I am looking for you, come here. What did you write yesterday?' " said Oduor.

Eric Oloo, a journalist with The Star newspaper was attacked by a group of about 10 men on July 11 when he went to cover a rally in Siaya County. He told CPJ that the men told him that they did not want him there because of his critical reporting on Siaya governor Cornel Rasanga Amoth. Rasanga's communications director Bonny Odinga condemned the attack in an interview with The Star. Odinga also told CPJ that neither the governor nor his team were involved.

And in June, CPJ documented the case of Emmanuel Namisi, a Royal Media broadcast journalist who was attacked and threatened by men he identified as the bodyguards of Bungoma County governor Kenneth Lusaka. The journalist told CPJ at the time that the men were angry over a story he had written alleging that they played a role in the death of a woman at a political rally. Lusaka told The Star that he has cautioned his staff "against such behaviour."

Joyce Kimani, secretary-general of the Kenya Correspondents Association, told CPJ that the risks journalists face as they cover the elections will also be linked to the bias, perceived or real, of their respective media houses. She said that she is aware of journalists who have said they are skipping certain events or parts of Kenya's Rift Valley region to avoid being targeted due to perceived allegiances.

During the post-2007 election violence, the Nation Media Group had to repaint its newspaper delivery vans from red to white, to make them less noticeable in hostile areas, Mshindi said. He added that newspapers and television stations are taking care to allocate equal space to both the Jubilee party and NASA coalition to avoid potentially dangerous accusations.

"The complaints about media bias resulted from the fact that media has been more aggressive in criticizing and exposing," said Standard Group editorial director Joseph Odindo.

Journalists in Kenya, who are already facing a shrinking space for free expression, must also contend with reporting restrictions. On July 29, Minister for Information Mucheru warned that any media house that "dares to announce or publish any results other than [the electoral commission's]" would be shut down. In an interview with CPJ on August 3, Mucheru clarified that the media are free to announce results and project winners as long as they base their reporting on figures released by the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission.

The government is also closely monitoring social media activity to guard against hate speech and inflammatory content. Under guidelines published in July, social media sites are required to pull down accounts "disseminating undesirable political contents" within 24 hours of notice.

[Reporting from Nairobi]


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