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Ferry passengers flee from police firing tear gas, at the ferry in Mombasa, Kenya Friday, March 27, 2020. © 2020 AP Photo

Kenyan media didn’t have much to celebrate on World Press Freedom Day.

Kenyan police and senior state officials have continued to intimidate, threaten, and physically attack journalists reporting on sensitive issues, and authorities have done little to end the abuses.

Since March, Kenya has instituted a range of measures to curb the spread of the virus, including a dusk-to-dawn curfew. But police have used excessive violence to enforce it, which has apparently included attacks on journalists.

On March 27, Kenya’s first day of curfew, police in Mombasa allegedly assaulted Peter Wainana, a journalist with one of Kenya’s leading television stations, NTV, long before curfew time. Wainaina was reporting on how police used excessive force against people queuing to board a ferry back home from work ahead of the curfew.

On March 29, police reportedly attacked George Muriithi, a cameraperson for a local television station, Weru, while he filmed police officers and government administrators using violence to enforce social distancing rules on traders in Mintuguu market, Meru County.

On the same day, police arrested three journalists – John Wanyama and Charles Kerecha of Citizen TV, and Mukoya Aywah, an independent journalist – reportedly for violating the curfew in Uasin Gishu and Kiambu counties, despite a government exemption for media from curfew restrictions. The journalists had been asking the public and the police about the curfew implementation.

There have been numerous similar reports of police harassment of journalists across Kenya during the pandemic. ARTICLE 19, a nongovernmental organization that promotes free expression, says that 22 journalists have been attacked since Kenya announced its first Covid-19 case on March 13.

Unfortunately, these problems aren’t new.

In 2017, Human Rights Watch and ARTICLE 19 documented how journalists reporting on sensitive issues in Kenya are obstructed by authorities, including through threats, harassment, and physical assault. And even though journalists make formal complaints, police have rarely investigated the attacks or threats.

Kenya dropped from 96 to 103 in this year’s World Press Freedom Index rankings, and in January 2020 alone, Kenyan media reported at least four incidents of police brutality against journalists in Nairobi, Nakuru, and Mombasa.

Yet access to timely, accurate information and open public debate are crucial for addressing this  public health crisis. Kenya should be protecting journalists, not attacking them.

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