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Kenya’s Government Should Know Free Press is Crucial for Fair Election

Journalists Face Intimidation Around Election

An anti-riot police officer aims a teargas canister while journalists cover an anti-corruption protest in Kenya's capital, Nairobi. November 3, 2016.  © 2016 REUTERS/Thomas Mukoya

Duncan Khaemba, a television journalist in Kenya, was reporting on cases of violence in Kibera, a low-income neighborhood in Nairobi, when he was arrested with his colleague Otieno Willis on August 12, and subsequently released. Media reported they were arrested for having bullet-proof gear.

Whether or not the arrest was designed to intimidate, it occurred during a period of intimidation faced by Kenyan press before, during, and after the 2017 elections. Many journalists were slow to report on the violence that marred the announcement of results, although the international press were able to report freely. Even as some protests in opposition strongholds and victory celebrations elsewhere turned violent, Kenyan media was silent for the first 12 hours, which left Kenyans grasping at unverified reports on social media.

People are questioning the information vacuum: why did local press take so long to cover the violence, or corroborate online reports of police brutality? Before judging local media harshly, let’s recall that Kenyan journalists still face harassment, detention, and repression while reporting on the country’s crises.

Local press has had to walk a fine line, facing accusations of bias from the opposition and government alike. In the post-election violence of 2007-2008, the media were accused of fueling violence after broadcasting images of battles between police and youth in various parts of the country. In the 2013 elections, much of the Kenyan media avoided reporting on unrest that followed voting that year.

Human Rights Watch spoke to journalists and bloggers in Kenya ahead of the 2017 election and found that many of them are self-censoring to avoid getting in trouble with the state. Editors spoke out against threats in the lead-up to the election, but journalists continue to face undue harassment from police and other state agents.

As an economic and political leader in East Africa, Kenya should end this suppression. The state should support free press to ensure that citizens critique important processes such as elections and their aftermath. Now more than ever, it is critical that the Kenyan government and other state authorities provide protection for press, investigate reports of intimidation, and ensure justice for crimes against journalists. 

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