Threats to Media in Kenya Ahead of August Polls

By Khalifa Hemed
Published June 16, 2017

Authorities in Kenya are threatening independent media ahead of general elections slated for August 8, 2017.Authorities in Kenya are threatening independent media ahead of general elections slated for August 8, 2017.

Human Rights Watch and ARTICLE 19 Eastern Africa say journalists and bloggers reporting on corruption, disputed land acquisition, counterterrorism operations, and the 2007-2008 post-electoral violence, among other sensitive issues, have faced intimidation, beating, and job loss.

The rights bodies–in a 53-page report titled Not Worth The Risk: Threats To Free Expression Ahead of Kenya’s 2017 Elections–document what they term as ‘government attempts to obstruct critical journalists and bloggers with legal, administrative, and informal measures, including threats, intimidation, harassment, online and phone surveillance, and in some cases, physical assault’.

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“We must stem the tide of increased violence and impunity against journalists in Kenya,” says Henry Maina, regional director at ARTICLE 19 Eastern Africa. “No policy to address the situation can be successful if measures to prevent aggression against and to protect at-risk journalists are not accompanied with thorough and timely prosecutions of all crimes committed against them.”

Despite receiving formal complaints from journalists, the rights bodies say, police have rarely investigated the attack or threats.

Human Rights Watch and ARTICLE 19 have documented 17 incidents in which they say 23 journalists and bloggers were physically assaulted between 2013 and 2017 by government officials or individuals believed to be aligned with government officials.

Human Rights Watch and ARTICLE 19 Eastern Africa say journalists and bloggers reporting on corruption, disputed land acquisition, counterterrorism operations, and the 2007-2008 post-electoral violence, among other sensitive issues, have faced intimidation, beating, and job loss.They say at least two media practitioners died under circumstances that may have been related to their work. The groups also documented 16 incidents of direct death threats against journalists and bloggers across the country in recent years, and cases in which police arbitrarily arrested, detained, and later released without charge at least 14 journalists and bloggers.

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On September 7, 2016, unidentified assailants forced themselves into the house of a photojournalist, Denis Otieno, in the town of Kitale, Rift Valley, and demanded photos on his camera, then shot him dead. Otieno had photographed police officers shooting to death a motorcycle taxi rider at a Kitale bus station a few days earlier. A family member said that before his murder, Otieno had expressed alarm about death threats. No one has been arrested in relation to his killing.

One Nairobi-based editor told the two groups: “Whenever we write articles critical of security agencies or exposing corruption in the government, our reporters receive death threats from security and other government officials. This is usually followed up with withdrawal of government advertising or withholding of revenue from advertising. We now have to assess carefully whether such stories are worth the cost.”

Not even foreign media have been spared the brunt of government abuse for critical reporting.With the general election set for August, state security agencies have heightened threats and appear to be using ambiguous legal provisions to carry out increased surveillance, without warrants, on journalists reporting on sensitive issues. As one reporter said, “If you have written about security agencies or corruption-related stories, you have to know that you are being followed or your phone is being listened into.”

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“For Kenya’s August elections to be credible and fair, the media need to report on pressing issues of national interest without fear of reprisal,” says Otsieno Namwaya, Africa researcher at Human Rights Watch. “President Uhuru Kenyatta should publicly underscore the importance of free expression and condemn threats and attacks on journalists and bloggers.

Not even foreign media have been spared the brunt of government abuse for critical reporting. In 2015, Kenyan authorities threatened to ban two foreign journalists for an international media outlet for reporting on alleged police death squads implicated in extrajudicial killing.

Timely and thorough investigations and prosecutions for these attacks and threats is crucial in ensuring that the media and bloggers report freely on issues ahead of the 2017 elections, Human Rights Watch and ARTICLE 19 say.

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