Reporters Without Borders today welcomed a decision by Kenya’s attorney general on 17 January to drop a criminal libel prosecution against Kamau Ngotho of the independent daily The Standard, which had been brought under a law dating back to the colonial era.
"By taking this decision, Kenya proves that it is one of the few countries in Africa that is determined to ensure that press freedom is respected," the organisation said. "The show of support by western embassies was exemplary and we would like to reiterate that this kind of initiative should be taken more often," it added.
The prosecution of Ngotho for implicating a government official and an associate of the president in alleged corruption outraged many ambassadors. It has been accepted that the prosecution would have violated certain aspects of the constitution.
Before the decision was taken to drop the case, Ngotho had already won the right to be judged by the constitutional court instead of an ordinary court. He had faced up to three years in prison if convicted.
January 14, 2005
Storm over libel charge against Standard reporter
Reporters Without Borders voiced concern today about the libel charge that was brought yesterday against a leading investigative journalist, Kamau Ngotho of The Standard, under a law dating back to the colonial era, triggering an outcry in a country that normally respects press freedom.
"We will never cease to protest against governments that try to sanction defamation with prison sentences, but the enthusiasm displayed by the Kenyan authorities in using an exceptional procedure to bring charges against The Standard is particularly worrying," the press freedom organisation said.
"If the persons affected wish to issue a denial or qualify what has been published by the newspaper, they have ways to proceed other than bringing a legal action, especially if it could result in a journalist receiving a prison sentence," Reporters Without Borders said.
The organisation added that it welcomed the joint protest issued by several foreign embassies in Nairobi. "We urge influential diplomatic representations to take this kind of initiative more often in countries where press freedom is being trampled on, as it is today in Kenya, to our great surprise."
The clash between press and authorities began on 11 January when The Standard deputy editor Kwamchetsi Makokha was summoned and questioned for four hours by the Nairobi criminal investigation department as a result of a complaint by businessman John Macharia "and others" over a story by Ngotho in the 8 January issue headlined "Mr. Moneybags: big money games that runs Kenya’s politics."
The report described the small economic elite that, despite the recent change in government, continues to get rich as a result of its network of friendships within the administration, and said conflicts of interest could result from the close links between some of President Mwai Kibaki’s aides and leading Kenyan companies. Makokha was released after being questioned.
His interrogation was ordered under article 194 of the criminal code concerning "criminal defamation," which dates back to colonial times and has never been used since independence in 1963.
Nine foreign embassies in Nairobi, including those of the United States, Britain, Germany and Canada, quickly issued a joint statement voicing outrage, accusing the authorities of breaking "one of their most important electoral promises," namely to guarantee press freedom, and urging President Kibaki to combat corruption rather than try to intimidate the media.
Maina Kiai, the head of the Kenya National Commission on Human Rights, said criminal libel was "a tactic used by dictatorships and repressive regimes to intimidate and gag the press." Yesterday’s issue of The Standard carried a number of corrections to the article together with apologies to "all persons concerned" for the errors.
Nonetheless, Ngotho was formed charged yesterday afternoon with publishing a defamatory article after he presented himself to the authorities. Previously a warrant for his arrest was issued. He was freed on bail of 20,000 shillings (about 200 euros). A hearing has been set for 17 January. If convicted, Ngotho faces up to four years in prison.