Attacks on journalists a reversal of heralded press freedom gains

Linda Bach

Recent attacks, threats and arbitrary arrests of Kenyan journalists are a sign that all is not well with press freedom in the country. The incidents also raise concerns about the safety of newsmen and their ability to carry out their work under the present circumstances.

Although the Constitution guarantees journalists freedom to discharge their duties without interference from State, lately several members of the Fourth Estate have found themselves on the receiving end of law enforcers.

And the attacks have increased in number and intensity and brutality, with some of the cases resulting in the victims sustaining serious injuries or even death. The case that is still fresh on everyone’s mind is the brutality police meted out on The Standard Siaya correspondent Isaiah Gweng’i.

The pen is mightier...

Gweng’i was clobbered by Quick Response Team officers, arrested and held overnight over incitement claims. The officers reportedly taunted him for using a ‘mere pen’ to fight the Government.

However, according to the reporter, all he had done was write stories exposing the criminal activities the officers were involved in at Usenge Market, which included extortion, assault and harassment of traders.

These were officers who had been posted to ward off Ugandan fishermen from Kenyan waters in Lake Victoria, and stop them from harassing their Kenyan counterparts. But either because of idleness or some other reason which we may not know, they turned on innocent traders.

And exposing them earned Gweng’i a brutal beating, something we should not be seeing in this era and age. One of the officers, he said, openly expressed his hatred for journalists.

In April 2015, two Malindi-based journalists ended up in hospital with broken ribs and limbs after they were beaten up by officers from the General Service Unit while on duty.

We all know how officers from this unit are dreaded; they can be so brutal.

NTV’s Nehemiah Okwemba and Reuben Ogonda of Citizen were following up a story where hundreds of livestock belonging to local herders had been confiscated by the authorities after their owners trespassed on the Agricultural Finance Corporation Galana/Kulalu ranch in Tana River County. A straight forward story in my opinion, but the officers thought otherwise. They were beaten with gun butts, kicked all over, and forced to lie on the ground.

While Gweng’i, Okwemba and Ogonda survived to tell their stories, two years ago one journalist was not as lucky. In May 2015, Eldoret-based journalist John Kituyi was murdered by unknown assailants. The 63-year-old was the editor and publisher of the Mirror Weekly, a privately owned newspaper with a regional focus.

He was walking home from work when assailants on a motorcycle approached him. The attackers reportedly hit him repeatedly with a blunt object and took his phone, but did not take his money or watch.

Back to the past

It is suspected he may have been targeted over a story that ran in the Mirror Weekly on the Kenyan case at the International Criminal Court.

The country appears to be slowly sliding back to the era of oppression where the media could do little to bring those in power to account. And this is happening at a time when press freedom is guaranteed by the supreme law of the land; the Constitution.

Article 34 states that the State shall not interfere with any person engaged in the production of or circulation of any publication of information by any medium.

And Article 33 guarantees every person the right to freedom of expression, which includes freedom to seek, receive or impart information or ideas.

Attacks on journalists are a direct affront to freedom of the press and should not be condoned. Affected media houses should pursue these cases and have those responsible punished, and also ensure the safety of their journalists.

As the country gears for the August elections, media houses should not be caught flat-footed. Individual journalists should also take charge of their personal safety. I encourage all journalists to join a Twitter campaign towards a free press: #FreeMediaNow

Ms Bach is a Revise Editor at The Standard

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