Human rights groups have been concerned since President Uhuru Kenyatta took power in 2013 at the authoritarian direction Kenya’s government has been taking. But the situation has taken an alarming turn in the past week. Three highly repressive measures by the authorities since January 30 should worry us all, including the international community, which has been treating Kenyatta’s administration with kid gloves.
Kenyan media and nongovernment groups that are even mildly critical of the government have come under immense pressure in the last five years.
On the morning of January 30, the Communications Authority of Kenya switched off KTN, NTV, Citizen and Inooro radio and television stations. The stations were broadcasting live from the site of the planned swearing as the “people’s president” of Raila Odinga, Kenyatta’s challenger in the recent presidential elections, in the hours before Odinga arrived to take the oath.
The Chairman of the Kenya Editors’ Guild, Linus Kaikai, had publicly protested what he said was a secret meeting that President Kenyatta held with editors and senior media managers on January 26. Kaikai said that the president threatened at the meeting to take any station that aired the Odinga event live off the air. This allegation was repeated by others who said they attended the meeting, such as the vice chair of the Kenya Editors’ Guild and the Chairman of the Media Owners’ Association. The government neither confirmed nor denied that the meeting took place.
Also on January 30, the Kenyan authorities designated the National Resistance Movement (NRM), an activist wing of Odinga’s NASA coalition, a criminal group. This step set the stage for a brutal crackdown on politicians and lawyers who took part in Odinga’s oath ceremony.
Kenya is a multiparty democracy, where opposition politics are legal, so designating the NRM a criminal organization amounts to criminalizing opposition politics.
On January 31, police attempted to arrest three NTV journalists, Linus Kaikai, Larry Madowo and Ken Mijungu, allegedly to help with investigations into what interior cabinet secretary, Fred Matiangi, described as collusion between the media and the opposition to cause violence by airing Odinga’s oath ceremony live. The journalists secured anticipatory bail barring police from arresting them but were required to record statements with police.
The media shutdown was arbitrary and has plunged Kenya into information darkness, undermining the right of Kenyans to access information or authenticate rumors. This is especially dangerous in the tense environment in Kenya right now, especially with the government either violently arresting and detaining opposition politicians and individual journalists, or threatening them with arrest.
Moreover, the government has shown blatant disdain for court orders. On February 1, the High Court of Kenya issued an order suspending the government ban on the media organizations. The Kenyan authorities’ response was to deploy police around all relevant government offices to block court officers from serving the order. It was eventually served, but authorities continued to ignore the court order and the TV and radio stations remained off the air for another five days.
On the early morning of February 2, police broke into the house of an opposition lawyer, Miguna Miguna,and arrested him. Miguna is one of the people who swore Odinga in as the people’s president That evening, Miguna’s lawyers secured a court order for his release on bail.
Kenyan authorities simply ignored the order and not only failed to release Miguna but denied him access to lawyers and to medication despite reports that he had an asthma attack in police cells and urgently needed the medicine. His lawyers struggled to establish where he was being held. Miguna had not been charged by the third day even though Kenyan law requires an accused to be charged within 24 hours or be released.
On February 5, police ignored a second court order to produce Miguna in court, prompting the judge to cite the inspector general of police and the director general of the directorate of criminal investigations for contempt. On Feb 6, media reports suggested that Miguna may have been charged in a Magistrates court in the outskirts of Nairobi, but police failed for the second time to produce him before the High Court as ordered by the Judge. Instead, later that evening, and rather than present him before court as ordered, police deported Miguna to Canada, the country of his acquired citizenship.
This heavy-handed approach by the Kenyan authorities completely disregards international law and its own national law. The government and state officials have a responsibility to uphold the rule of law, especially releasing people whom courts have ordered released – even more so at a time when the political stakes are so high.