“I am quite excited that Moi is leaving. Kenyans have changed. We have a free press, and it is no longer a situation of follow in my footsteps.” – Binyavanga Wainaina
When former President Daniel arap Moi was leaving office 16 years ago, acclaimed Kenyan author, Binyavanga Wainaina was happy for the birth of a new Kenya, one that would have a free press, and a president that would listen to the people. Two presidents later, and it appears Kenya is gradually backsliding into an era of dissent as Kenyatta’s government unleash a crackdown on the press.
Three independent television stations, Citizen, NTV and KTN TV have been shut down over their decision to cover the self-declared inauguration of Raila Odinga on Tuesday, January 30th. Prior to the event on Tuesday, the government had summoned and cautioned senior editors not to cover the event or risk being shut down. And on Wednesday, had said the TV stations would stay off air indefinitely.
As reported by Reuters, some journalists who work for NTV spent the night in their newsroom on Wednesday in fear of arrest as plainclothes policemen camped outside their office. “We were doing our job, we had the right to do this, and if I was to do it again, I’d do it the same way,” Ken Mijungu, a senior anchor and reporter with NTV told Reuters. He had spent the night in his office conferring with lawyers in apprehension of an arrest should he step out.
According to Mijungu, two of his colleagues, Larry Madowo and Linus Kaikai, had been warned by security sources that their arrest was imminent. The shutdown has prompted widespread criticism and raised fears that the country was reverting to the days of Moi when brutal repression and dissent was the order of the day.
“This is clearly a slide to dictatorship. It’s a return to a repressive period we had forgotten about. We are becoming another African country with these kinds of issues”, Madowo told Reuters. Tom Mshindi, editor-in-chief of Kenya’s Nation Media Group, also described the shutdown as a sad moment for media freedom in Kenya. “We must stand very firm together because if we don’t … we will perish, we will go back to the days we don’t want to even remember,” he told reporters.
In the past decade, there have been several attempts by the Kenyan government to curtail press freedom. Five years ago, President Kenyatta signed the Media Act and Kenya Information, Communication Act into law. Both contained retrogressive clauses. It took the Kenya Editors Guild, Kenya Correspondents Association, Kenya Union of Journalists, and a host of other parties to challenge both before the Constitutional Court and have the contentious sections suspended.
Yesterday, Thursday, February 1st, a supreme court issued an order overturning the shutdown, asking that the stations be allowed to resume broadcasting for two weeks while a case challenging the legality of the government’s action is heard. “Government expected to restore NTV, Citizen TV and KTN News signals after High Court suspends switch off for 14 days pending case being heard,” NTV tweeted. Still, as of this morning, eight hours after the court order was issued, the government was yet to turn on the stations.
The U.S. State Department has released a statement that it is deeply concerned by the government’s action to shut down, intimidate, and restrict the media. “Freedom of expression, including for members of the media, is essential to democracy and is enshrined in Kenya’s Constitution. We urge the Government and all Kenyans to respect freedom of expression and implement court orders calling for the restoration of television broadcasts”, the statement read.
BBC analysts say the three affected stations are perceived to offer relatively independent and balanced news coverage and are the people’s favourite, commanding nearly two-thirds of Kenya’s TV audience.