The Kenya government this week switched off broadcast signals for three leading television stations for airing the build-up to the “swearing-in” of opposition leader Raila Odinga as the “people’s president.”
The three stations — Citizen, NTV and KTN News — were switched off on Tuesday morning, when they started airing the opposition rally at Uhuru Park in the capital.
Government officials believed to be security officers accompanied technicians from the Communications Authority to the transmission station in Limuru, about 35km west of Nairobi, to switch off the television stations’ signals, citing security concerns.
This marked the most vicious crackdown on media by the Uhuru Kenyatta administration, whose critics accuse of shrinking the media space.
By press time, the government had not communicated to the affected media houses about the switch off and possible resumption of broadcasts, despite a court order issued Thursday reversing the action.
The government could have relied on the Public Order Act and Prevention of Organised Crime Act to carry out the operation that has cost the stations close to Ksh30 million ($300,000) daily, according to Ipsos Synovate data.
Henry Maina, executive director Article 19, a media lobby, said the government’s action was unjustified.
“Whatever the justification, the action was unlawful because the government has not written to the media houses to state specific sections of the law that have been violated,” he said.
Activist Okiya Omtatah, who had gone to court seeking orders for the restoration of broadcasts was granted the prayers by High Court Judge Chacha Mwita. The judge ordered the Communication Authority, Ministries of ICT and Interior to restore the signals and not interfere with activities of the three media houses pending an ex-parte hearing on February 14.
Before the switch-off, the Editors' Guild released a statement on Friday, in which it revealed that State House had warned against live broadcast of the swearing in ceremony. The Guild accused President Kenyatta of threatening the media over the coverage of the ongoing political events in the country.
Chairman Linus Kaikai, who is also NTV’s general manager, protested the alleged threat saying, “The media remains a mere messenger and a chronicler of any events happening in our country. Our country’s vibrant media is made up of competent professionals in journalists and editors that continue to make sound decisions on what constitutes news, in public interest.”
His statement made public the visit to State House, by a section of media managers and editors from the main media houses.
The meeting was attended by President Kenyatta, Deputy President William Ruto, Interior Cabinet Secretary Fred Matiang’i, ICT Secretary Joe Mucheru and AG Githu Muigai.
The government and the Media Owners Association denied that the president threatened the media.
Later, after the switch-off, three NTV journalists were besieged in the Nation Media Group newsroom by police officers from the dreaded flying squad. The three — Linus Kaikai, Larry Madowo and Ken Mijungu — went to court and obtained orders against arrest.
High Court Judge Luka Kimaru granted them anticipatory bail of Ksh100,000 ($1,000) each and ordered them to present themselves at the Directorate of Criminal Investigations headquarters on Monday at 2pm.
The US Department of State and the European Union condemned the TV shutdown. Human and media rights organisations also protested the harassment of the media.
In separate statements on Thursday, the organisations urged the government to respect the freedom of expression.
The clampdown on the media by the Jubilee administration began in 2013 when Dr Matiang’i then Cabinet Secretary for Information and Communication, pushed through drastic changes in the Media and Kenya Communication Amendment Act, commonly referred to as KICA, to give the government more powers to regulate the media and punish journalists.
In 2015, the government again set out to control editorial content ostensibly to help fight terrorism, but the attempts were thwarted by the High Court, which found the proposed amendments offensive to the Constitution.
Dr Matiang’i, now in charge of the Interior docket, says the media houses violated the law when they defied a warning by the government against publicising activities of a proscribed group, National Resistance Movement, whose members are currently being hunted down by the security services.
A Nairobi MP, TJ Kajwang, and lawyer Miguna Miguna, who were among Nasa supporters at the Uhuru Park rally, were arrested on Wednesday and Friday respectively. Mr Kajwang was released on bail but Mr Miguna was still in police custody by press time.
The region has recently witnessed shrinking of media space, with enactment of laws that limit the operations of journalists and media owners.
For example, while the Media Act 2013 gives the Media Council of Kenya powers to regulate the industry with an established independent complaints commission to handle complaints against journalists, the Kenya Information and Communication Amendment Act establishes a tribunal that has the powers to impose fines on journalists and media houses, who are found guilty.
Some clauses in the National Security Service Act 2014, and the Media Authority Act 2013 clearly limit press freedom and freedom of expression. Article 12 of the Act states that a person who publishes, broadcasts or causes to be published or distributed, through print, digital or electronic means, insulting, threatening, or inciting material or images of dead or injured persons which are likely to cause fear and alarm to the general public or disturb public peace is liable to a fine not exceeding $48,543 or imprisonment for a term not exceeding three years or both.
Human Rights Watch and Article 19 which defends freedom of expression and information recently produced a report detailing how Kenyan authorities have committed a range of abuses against journalists reporting on sensitive issues.
The two organisations documented 16 incidents of direct death threats against journalists and bloggers across the country in recent years, and cases in which police arbitrarily arrested, detained and later released without charge at least 15 journalists and bloggers.
Uganda and Tanzania
In Uganda, freedom of expression and the press is constitutionally guaranteed under Article 29 which in section 1(b) states that “freedom of speech and expression shall include freedom of the press and other media.”
These are operationalised under the Press and Journalism Act and Electronic Media Act.
However, Uganda has criminal defamation on its law books, even while the African Court on Human and People’s Rights has previously ruled that imprisonment over defamation violates freedom of expression.
The legal regime is replete with restrictions including criminal defamation and sedition that remain on the law books, notably the Penal Code Act.
Laws like the Anti-Terrorism Act of 2001 holds journalists criminally liable if they are found communicating with a terrorist or terrorist organisation. Journalists could also fall foul of the law for among others “promoting terrorism” purely because of their work.
This law, in addition to others like the Offensive Communications which was passed under the Computer Misuse Act are used by police to harass journalists and editors. Other laws that are a threat to the media include the Anti-Pornography Act, which carry penalties for publishers.
In Tanzania, the Media Services Act 2016 gives the government more powers to interrogate journalists and ban any publication that prints information thought to affect the national security and public health. At least four newspapers have recently been banned in Tanzania.