Reporters Without Borders voiced concern today about the present "dire" state of relations between the Kenyan press and President Mwai Kibaki’s administration, which have deteriorated sharply over the past two weeks in a series of public clashes that are all the more shocking in country that has enjoyed relative stability until now.
"President Kibaki should realise this battle with the privately-owned media of the past weeks will only lead to an even worse situation," the press freedom organization said. "The mounting threats, harassment and attacks against the press are not only a very bad example for Kenya society but also the sign of something beginning to go awry with the country’s democracy."
The organization added: "It is time for President Kibaki to extricate himself from a personal quarrel that is reaching grotesque proportions, and to behave like a head of state by calming things down rather than adding fuel to the flames."
Relations began to deteriorate when First Lady Lucy Kibaki led a heavy-handed raid on the premises of the Nation Media Group, Kenya’s largest press group, shortly before midnight on 2 May accompanied by her bodyguards and Nairobi’s chief of police. She stayed for several hours in the offices of The Nation newspaper, insulting and threatening journalists because of their "unfair" reports about her and demanding their immediate arrest.
When she realised that Kenya Television Network (KTN) cameraman Clifford Derrick had been filming the scene, she leaped at him, slapping him hard and trying unsuccessfully to snatch his camera. She was enraged about reports in that day’s issues of The Nation and The Standard about her attempts to put a stop to the noise at a farewell party on the night of 29 April for Makhtar Diop, the World Bank’s representative in Kenya.
Derrick filed a complaint with the police on 10 May, while the first lady filed a request for sanctions with the Media Council, whose job is to regulate the press.
The government yesterday asked director of public prosecutions Philip Murgor to reject Derrick’s complaint. The judicial authorities are due to decide tomorrow whether the case will be taken any further.
The presidential press office said Lucy Kibaki’s complaint to the Media Council was made "with a view to encouraging the news corporations and individual editors, journalists and photojournalists to approach the First Office and the First Family with much more decorum and protocol, much more respect, fairness and balanced reporting ... than has been the case for some time now."
Angwenyi Gichani, The Nation’s correspondent in the western district of Nyamira, was meanwhile physically attacked on 6 May by Stephen Orwenyo, the director of the Sangany tea plant in the town of Kisii. In the presence of his company’s chairman, Migiro Ongwae, Orwenyo hit Gichani with a chair after accusing him of covering his activities in a "negative" manner. Gichani was rescued by security guards employed by the hotel where the incident took place.
The same day, the Mombasa high court ordered the press group that owns The Nation to pay the exorbitant sum of 10 million shillings (103,000 euros) in damages for allegedly libelling a judge, David Musinga, in a 1999 article that quoted the claims of an accident victim’s relatives that Musinga, then a lawyer, never paid them the damages they were awarded by a court. The Nation refused to apologise to Musinga on the grounds that the report was in the public interest.
Press offences are no longer punishable by imprisonment in Kenya, but judges appointed by the president on the basis of "loyalty" sometimes order newspapers to pay disproportionate sums in fines and damages.
In December 2000, a court ordered two British writers to pay the record amount of 30 million shillings (310,000 euros) for supposedly libelling former cabinet minister Nicholas Biwott in book that referred to his possible involvement in the murder of former foreign minister Robert Ouko. Bookpoint, a leading Nairobi bookstore, was also ordered to pay 10 million shillings (103,000 euros) just for selling the book.
In March 2002, the People Daily newspaper was sentenced to pay 20 million shillings (207,000 euros) for supposedly libelling a minister in a 1999 report implying that he was corrupt.