Time to protect journalists

The media in Kenya is vibrant and diverse with five national newspapers, all but one published in English. After a successful digital transition two years ago the country has 63 licensed digital terrestrial television stations and 139 FM radio stations. Creating this vibrancy, across all media activity, are an estimated 3,000 journalists.

For many years, Kenya has been the place to run to for journalists from neighbouring countries. It has been the hub where most foreign journalists covering Africa have operated from. However, the sense of Kenya as a safe haven has changed dramatically in recent years. It is a country that has become increasingly unsafe for journalists, bloggers and media workers, who have been forced to operate in an environment of insecurity and impunity. Violence against journalists has become the new normal, rather than the exception.

Last week, in our joint report, Not Worth the Risk: Threats to Free Expression Ahead of Kenya’s 2017 Election, ARTICLE 19 and Human Rights Watch examined the risks to free expression ahead of the elections this year. This is not a report about South Sudan, Burundi or the Democratic Republic of Congo, where there is an active conflict. This is a report on Kenya, one of the leading economies and most prosperous nations in Africa.

Physically attacked

The report highlights 14 specific cases over a four-year period where the police have arrested journalists but then released them without charge. Journalists and bloggers have been threatened, intimidated, harassed, beaten, physically attacked and arbitrarily sacked. Since the beginning of the year, not one week has passed without a recorded incident against a journalist. The act of reporting on corruption, disputed land acquisition, counter-terrorism operations, and electoral-related violence, has become a dangerous occupation.

It is clear that the perpetrators of the attacks are mostly security agents, Government officials or politicians and the levels of violence and impunity are on the increase. ARTICLE 19 recorded 38 incidents of attacks against journalists in 2014. By 2015, that figure had jumped to 65 recorded incidents, including the murder of John Kituyi, the 62-year-old editor of the Mirror Weekly newspaper.

Female journalists and bloggers have not been spared. In 2015, an unidentified assailant, who some believe was a Government security officer, physically assaulted a human rights and anti-corruption blogger, Florence Wanjeri Nderu, leaving her with serious injury on one eye. The attacker warned her against continuing with her blogs on corruption, yet despite a detailed report to the police provided by Ms Nderu, police have failed to investigate her case.

The number of attacks dropped in 2016: we recorded 46 incidents of attacks on the Kenyan media, but there is significant concern that the actual numbers are hidden due to fear of reprisals.

On September 7, 2016, a photojournalist, Denis Otieno was brutally attacked by unidentified assailants who forced themselves into his house Kitale. They demanded photos in his camera, and then shot him dead. Otieno is believed to have photographed police officers shooting to death a motorcycle taxi rider at a Kitale bus station a few days earlier. Nine months after the gruesome murder, no one has been arrested.

In 2017, an election year, 31 attacks on the press have been recorded by ARTICLE 19. In over 90 per cent of those recorded cases over the last four years, there has been no credible and timely investigation opened by the police. In the cases where some investigation is initiated, generally as a result of pressure on the police, little progress is made and the investigations have lapsed.

Impunity is embedded in the culture of the authorities responsible for investigating crimes. Eight years ago, the murder of journalist Francis Nyaruri who disappeared in January 2009 after he went to interview a police officer remains unresolved. Nyaruri’s body was found two weeks after his disappearance.

Foreign journalists are not immune to the hostile behaviour of the authorities. In December 2016, Jerome Starkey, Africa Correspondent for The Times of London was deported after being held incommunicado in the airport on arrival from the United Kingdom. No explanation was given for his expulsion. Other journalists have been threatened with a ban for investigating police death squads implicated in extrajudicial killings.

The situation in Kenya is deteriorating. There is strong evidence to support the view that most of those suspected of attacks on journalists and media workers are State security agencies or public figures that enjoy connections with the ruling elite.

Nevertheless, the Judiciary has been consistent in protecting freedom of expression. In three separate cases, during the last three years, the High Court of Kenya declared eight sections of the Security Laws Amendment Act, two sections of the Penal Code and one section of the Kenya Information and Communication Act unconstitutional. Parliament also passed a comprehensive access to information law and repealed some offending sections of the Official Secrets Act.

While the legislature remains robust, the situation on the ground requires strong and unequivocal leadership. Ahead of the General Election in August this year, President, Uhuru Kenyatta must demonstrate that Kenya is safe for free expression by systematically condemning the attacks and encouraging the police, Government officials and security forces to end impunity. Attacks of all kinds — killings, threats, harassment, obstruction, intimidation and arbitrary arrests of journalists and bloggers, has to stop.

Effective investigation

We need the Director of Public Prosecutions to ensure prompt, thorough, independent and effective investigation of all attacks, and to adopt a plan that would address the failure to adequately investigate the cases. In the run-up to the election, politicians and public officials should ensure full respect for international law by allowing full, open reporting and commentary on any issues during the election period and after. Matters of pressing public interest, including security, corruption, and accountability for election-related violence will have a bearing on the legitimacy of the Government to lead the country.

Without open and transparent law enforcement, and a genuine culture of free expression where journalists and bloggers are free to carry out their work, Kenya risks losing its status in the world as a progressive and vibrant democracy.

The writer is the Regional Director of ARTICLE 19 Eastern Africa.