ASSAULTS AND THREATS

Shrinking press freedom leaves truth under seige

Some journalists have had to censor themselves to remain alive

In Summary

• Journalists endure harassment, kidnappings, attacks and threats, some are killed

• More than 20 cases have been reported this year, says the Media Council of Kenya

Oppression of journalists
Oppression of journalists
Image: STAR ILLUSTRATED

Sometime in 2016, I was out on an assignment with a colleague, John Chesoli, a photojournalist based in Mombasa, then an intern.

He had accompanied me to sharpen his photo journalistic skills, so I gave him the opportunity to take pictures.

Mombasa county inspectorate officials were demolishing kiosks for traders outside Coast Provincial General Hospital.

 
 

A commotion ensued and one officer handcuffed him. I, too, was handcuffed, while questioning why they had arrested him. They drove us towards CBD, saying they were taking us to court.

They released us later and apologized, saying they didn’t know we were journalists, despite the fact that one of the officers was holding my press card.

On Tuesday, while finalizing on this article, I stumbled on a statement from Media Council of Kenya on the attempted abduction of a journalist.

The statement, signed by council CEO David Omwoyo, read, “On Monday 13th April, 2020, Mr Evans Nyakundi, the People Daily correspondent in Nyamira County, survived an attempted abduction by armed individuals thanks to the quick action of the public and police in the area.”

One suspect is in police custody over the attempted abduction. The journalist said this was the second such attempt to intimidate him in a month, ostensibly because of his journalistic work.

 

PART OF A PATTERN

This is not an isolated case. Statistics of journalists being attacked are escalating at a high rate. Journalists in Kenya have endured harassment, kidnappings, attacks and threats, while others have been killed.

 

“The first casualty when war comes is truth," goes the old saying. It could be argued that journalists are the second casualty.

On September 2018, Nation journalist Barack Oduor, then based in Homa Bay, survived an assassination attempt by jumping off a speeding car, but not before being robbed of his wallet some cash and his job card.

Fellow passenger Sharon Otieno, a Rongo University College student, would later be found dead in a thicket near Oyugi's town.

Migori Governor Okoth Obado was subsequently arrested over the death of Sharon, who was pregnant with his child at the time.

According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, the deadliest countries for journalists are Syria, Somalia, Mexico and Iraq.

Kenya does not come close to these countries, which are marked by decades-long civil wars, ruthless gun and drug cartels and knife warfare. But even then, journalists here have often found themselves in life-threatening situations.

Journalists not only have to contend with issues to do with payment and labour practices but also to grapple with a hostile environment from their audience and the authorities.

Early this year, Deputy Inspector General of Police Edward Mbugua cautioned the uniformed men and women against brutalising journalists.

"You are directed to refrain from mistreating the media fraternity as it is their responsibility to keep the public informed,” he said in a memo sent to police commanders.

"Pass the information to officers under your command. Any officer found to have manhandled any person will be dealt with as provided by the law." 

His statement followed three attack cases of journalists in the month of January.

Radio Citizen and Inooro FM reporter Robert Maina was beaten and his equipment confiscated by officers from Njoro police station in Nakuru county as he covered student unrest at Egerton University on January 12.

Daily Nation’s Wanjohi Githae and KTN's Brian Obuya were roughed up by police officers and teargassed at Kilimani police station. This was after politicians demanded the release of Gatundu South MP Moses Kuria, who had been arrested for alleged assault.

MORE EXAMPLES

In Mombasa, Daily Nation photojournalist Laban Walloga was attacked by police officers while covering protests by civil society groups and business operators in Mombasa. These were protesting against the government’s directive that made it mandatory for all cargo to be done through the Standard Gauge Railway.

Walloga counts about five instances where he has been harassed by cops and military in the line of duty.

“This is not good at all. When they see us with cameras, they should ask if you have your press card. If you are in the wrong, arrest would be better than being clobbered and roughed up for wrongs you know not,” he said.

In August 2018, Walloga, alongside NTV cameraman Karim Rajan, was roughed up and briefly detained for following up on the construction of a hotel said to be owned by a senior government official, which was blocking the beach and reclaiming sea land.

The explicit attempts to silence critical media voices have continued with little intervention.

Journalists following up on corruption in government and elsewhere have many times found themselves under the pressure of lawsuits.

In 2013, Bernard Wesonga, a journalist with the Star, died in unclear circumstances writing a story about expired fertiliser, which had been impounded by the Kenya Bureau of Standards at a godown in Changamwe.

Reports indicate the consignment was linked to a powerful politician, who is still in high office, and an influential Mombasa tycoon.

Three years later, Joseph Masha, a journalist with the Standard newspaper based in Kilifi, died after a suspected food poisoning incident.

A local politician had been irked by a story Masha had done. Nothing has come out of a public inquest opened at a Mombasa court.

A reporter in Mombasa has been threatened and attacked multiple times for covering crime reports in Likoni, where Kenya Navy officers and police have had deadly tit-for-tat scuffles with members of the public.

At one time, the reporter dashed into a shop, with the owners having to close the shop for a moment to shield the reporter from officers who were after him for following up on brutality cases.

A Mombasa-based photojournalist, Joseph Okanga, had his camera smashed during a court proceeding by slain Muslim cleric Sheikh Aboud Rogo’s son, identified as Dhulkifli Aboud Rogo.

His mother Haniya Saggar was in the dock to answer to terrorism charges in connection to the attack on Mombasa Central police station by three women. The heavily built young Rogo shouted at journalists to stop taking pictures of her before smashing the camera, detaching the lens from the body.

Another terror suspect, an Imam, threatened a female court reporter with death at Shanzu law courts.

“He put his hand on his neck and signalled me death gestures,” she recalled requesting to remain anonymous. "Months later after his acquittal, he reminded me he would still come for me."

IMPACT ON WORK

Muslim for Human Rights activist Francis Auma says intimidation of journalists makes it hard to hold governments accountable for corruption and human rights violations.

“Assault of journalists is a breach of the Constitution, which guarantees freedom of the media. If journalists are silenced, the public is denied the opportunity to get informed,” he says.

Despite newsroom security protocols and safety trainings, journalists are increasingly being targeted.

In Mombasa, a city with many cases of illegal trafficking of animal trophies, terrorism and international narcotics trade, journalists have had to censor themselves to remain alive.

Omwoyo says although journalists need to follow safety procedures while covering sensitive stories, they should never stop writing “because we exist to protect public interest".

“Impunity fights back but forces of good must overcome forces of bad,” he says, adding that threats to journalists must be overpowered.

The MCK boss adds that more than 20 cases have been reported this year. "Our biggest challenge remains out-of-court negotiations when we are pursuing these cases,” he adds.

Journalists are increasingly being attacked even in policed public skirmishes.

NTV cameraman Peter Wainaina was clobbered by a GSU police officer while covering police brutality as the curfew was being imposed at Likoni crossing channel.

Despite the attacks, journalists remain passionate about their work.