Kenyans woke on 2 March 2006 to learn that police had overnight carried out a brutal raid against The Standard newspaper and a television station. Footage of police officers burning copies of one of the country’s most respected newspapers were relayed around the world. The incident was revealing of the appalling relations between the government and the privately-owned media, in one of the continent’s most developed democracies.
For Kenyan journalists, the year 2006 will be remembered chiefly for the raid which came at 1am on 2 March, when police made coordinated onslaughts on the HQ of the privately-owned Kenya Television Network (KTN) and at the printers of the daily The Standard, in a Nairobi industrial zone. After beating the watchmen, numbers of police officers armed with AK-47s, triggered panic at the TV station. They forced staff to lie on the floor as they wrecked broadcast equipment, which took the station off air until early afternoon of the following day. Police stormed the film production unit, seizing equipment, including a number of computers, arrested and then quickly released four staff members. Simultaneously police officers seized copies of the 2 March edition of the The Standard at the printers and burned them in front of the television cameras in scenes which were shown around the world.
The government, through its Internal Security Minister, John Michuki, acknowleged it had ordered the police operation. It came after months of mounting hostility between the government of President Mwai Kibaki and the privately-owned press, in particular the powerful Nation Media Group and Standard Newspapers. This time it was an article which appeared on 25 February in the weekend edition of the The Standard, which unleashed the government’s ire. The article referred to a meeting two days earlier, between President Kibaki and the former environment minister Kalonzo Musyoka, to discuss a possible political alliance. Mr. Musyoka had left the government in November 2005 and campaigned with the opposition, against the draft constitution proposed by the head of state and finally rejected by the Kenyan people. The press offices of both President Kibaki and Kalonzo Musyoka denied that such a meeting had ever taken place. The Standard reported these denials but also referred to its own suspicions of a plot on the part of the coalition to which Musyoka belonged, with the aim of discrediting him.
But that was not enough to placate the government. In the first stage of its punitive operation, on 28 February, managing editor of The Standard, Chaacha Mwita, editor, Dennis Onyango, and journalist, Ayub Savula, were arrested and taken to a police station in Kileleshwa, in Nairobi. The storming of the newspaper came three days later. They were not released until the day after the raid. They were charged with “publication of false rumours with the intention of panicking the public” and were released on bail of 50,000 shillings (580 euros).
Far from solving whatever problems there were, this police raid and its consequences poisoned Kenya’s political and media life for the rest of the year. Who knew what? Who gave the orders? Why such brutality? These questions continued to nourish the debate, proving that physical attacks on the media are totally counter-productive for the government of a fully functioning democracy like Kenya.
Police are still often sent to settle scores with media, who, in the eyes of the government, have “overstepped the mark”. A police unit, led by head of operations for Nairobi, Julius Ndegwa, and deputy chief of the provincial criminal brigade, Isaiah Osugo, carried out a major search at the offices of the tabloid The Weekly Citizen and at several printers in the capital on 20 February. During this operation, journalist Johnstone Mativo, graphic designer, Ken Teyie, receptionist, Catherine Oyando, printer Paul Kimani, and distribution assistant Austin Alwaka, were arrested. Several street vendors were also picked up. They were all released a few days later.
The weekly, which specialises in sex cases, had carried several articles criticising Mwai Kibaki’s presidency. It had reported that the head of state, incapable of running the country, had delegated his powers to a special advisor, Stanley Murage, and that a power struggle was going on between a woman presented as his second wife, Mary Wambui, and “first lady” Lucy Kibaki.
Another problem confronting journalists in Kenya is the endemic violence that exists in one of the continent’s most troubled regions. The Nairobi offices of privately-owned Radio Hope, of the protestant evangelical Pentecostal Church was stormed during the night of 12 May by a band of nine assailants, two of whom opened fire on a night watchman killing him instantly, then injuring another member of the security staff and a presenter before fire-bombing studios and taking the station of air. A passer-by was also injured as the gang fled after the raid.
The attack, which the radio blamed on Muslim extremists, followed a Swahili-language broadcast of a programme called, “Jesus is the way”, which promoted conversion to Christianity for Muslims.