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Parallels between Standard Group raid and current digital migration stand-off

By Wilfred Ayaga | Mar 3rd 2015 | 4 min read
The Artur brothers

The coincidence could not have been more poignant. Exactly nine years and one day ago, a group of masked gunmen raided KTN offices and switched off transmission. The TVs are off-air today, and there is no telling when the screens will come back to life.

The Standard Group raid on March 2, 2006 was executed by masked gunmen who stormed its offices at I&M building along Kenyatta Avenue, beat up staff and disconnected transmission equipment. The thugs also raided The Standard's printing press on Likoni Road and burnt newspapers, in one of the worst attacks on media freedom in Kenya.

Government complicity in the incident came in the words of then Internal Security Minister the late John Michuki, who infamously quipped: When you rattle a snake, you must be prepared to be bitten by it.'

While Michuki represented the official version then, Information and Communications Technology (ICT) Cabinet Secretary Fred Matiang'i and the Communications Authority of Kenya (CA) Director Francis Wangusi are today the faces of the government on the digital migration, which has seen four independent media houses; KTN, NTV, QTV and Citizen, shut down for more than two weeks.

So vicious has the back and forth between the media and the Government been that during a National Assembly committee hearing, Wangusi was asked by Rarieda MP, Nicholas Gumbo to explain his hardline stance on the matter.

"You are so angry. You look as if you are going to war. With whom are you going to war?" Gumbo challenged the CA Director General.

Interviews with civil society activists, lawyers and politicians reveal a deep-seated feeling that the raid on Standard Group nine years ago and the current happenings are part of a long-running thread that places roadblocks on the work of journalists, and enables the establishment to exercise control over information.

Harun Ndubi, the Executive Director of Kituo Cha Sheria described the current stand-off as an attempt to keep important information away from the public.

"It is the right of every citizen to receive information and the media also have the right to share that information. These rights are enshrined in the Constitution and are also interconnected. When the Artur brothers came, they insulted Kenyans, yet they were gangsters and international criminals. There are parallels with what happened then, and what is happening today, with millions of Kenyans being thrown into darkness. A lot of technocrats would prefer darkness as it will then be easy to hide scandals," said Ndubi.

Paul Muite, who has been representing the three media houses in court, is shocked at the coincidence.

"It is truly regrettable what The Standard and KTN went through nine years ago. Today again because of the Government's attempts to scuttle the media, Kenyans are in the dark. It shows we are going back to the past. I believe the Kenyan people will not allow the media to be silenced and that they will stand up against what is clearly a violation of their constitutional right of access to information," said the lawyer.

What is worrying is that there is no indication the Government is likely to listen to the media houses' pleas.

Monday, Matiang'i insisted that all was well and that the talk about a media black-out was misplaced.

"It is the biggest joke of the year that people are talking of lack of media freedom in the country. Kenya has many stations still on air, including FM stations. The country also has the highest number of foreign correspondents. Is this the environment where the Government wants to muzzle the media?" said Matiang'i during an ICT forum in Nairobi.

Article 34 (2) of the Constitution, which was cited during the Standard raid, and which is being cited by the media houses in the current stand-off says thus: "The State shall not exercise control over or interfere with any person engaged in broadcasting, the production or circulation of any publication or the dissemination of information by any medium."

Former chair of the Committee of Experts Nzamba Kitonga told The Standard that it is possible for the Government and the media houses to reach a common ground on the current stand-off.

Orange Democratic Movement (ODM) Chairman John Mbadi is of the view that the raid on KTN in 2006 was a bad sign for the future of media freedom.

"While the Arturs targeted one media house, this is now an even wider scheme... I think what is happening now is taking us back to the dark old days and the bottom line is that we are moving backwards," said Mbadi.

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