• Citizens who are exercising their right to protest are often portrayed as bad citizens ‘paid’ by foreign entities to cause chaos and disorder.
• New Bill shifts the responsibility of security during protests from the police to the people by imposing civil and criminal liability on any person who causes grievous harm, damage to property or loss of earnings at a public gathering.
On July 20, 2019, three members of Ghetto Foundation, a community-based organisation in Mathare, were arrested on their way home from a meeting at the Kiamaiko Community Justice Centre.
They had attended a debrief session of the #SabasabaMarch4OurLives, a demonstration organised to protest extrajudicial killings by police in informal settlements. Nine comrades among those who arrived at the Huruma police station to inquire about the arrests were also arrested, some were beaten by the police officers and dispersed using teargas. Citizens who were trying to hold the police to account for criminal behaviour were now being treated as if they were criminals.
This is not unusual in Kenya today. Even though our right to assembly is enshrined in the Constitution, the state seems hellbent on cracking down on assembly.
Statistics compiled by Article 19 Eastern Africa from its daily monitoring of reportage on protests in Kenyan media show out of 152 protests recorded between January 2018 to July 1, 2019, majority were peaceful and went on without interference from the police or third parties.
It is however very concerning that where the police get involved (often through excessive force leading to violence), the result has been injuries and/or deaths. Police have in some instances responded to protests outside of the provisions of law, with excessive force used to disperse protesters rather than focusing on de-escalation.
Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.Martin Luther King Jr
This violence has been accompanied by punitive legislation such as the Public Order Act Amendment Bill 2019, which if passed would shift the responsibility of security during protests from the police to the people by imposing civil and criminal liability on any person who causes grievous harm, damage to property or loss of earnings at a public gathering.
Citizens who are exercising their right to protest are often portrayed as bad citizens ‘paid’ by foreign entities to cause chaos and disorder. This serves the purpose of instilling fear into people, and suggests that protests and violence are always linked – undermining the value of protest in a democratic society and deterring Kenyans from taking part and exercising their rights.
We are living in an age of protest as a form of expression: In Hong Kong, millions have taken to the streets to oppose an extradition Bill that could see Hong Kongers taken to mainland China for prosecution; in Algeria, demonstrations led to President Abdelaziz Bouteflika withdrawing his bid for a fifth presidential term; in Sudan, pro-democracy protests toppled President Omar al-Bashir.
Whether it's women protesting #MeToo, #BlackLivesMatters in the US, or the ‘gilet jaunes’ in France, more and more people are taking to the streets. Why? To make their voices heard. As seasoned activist Wilfred Olal points out, “protest is important for the community because when the government doesn’t listen, protests make them listen.”
Kenya itself is living proof of the importance of protest. We would not be an independent multi-party democracy with a progressive Constitution without the utility of protests. The people who took to the streets faced severe crackdowns and an environment hostile to political change.
Many countries are going through significant political changes, many communicated by the media, and the government has realised this with increasing instances of media and internet shutdowns.
We cannot allow the state to revert to those draconian times where they could punitively trample on citizens’ rights. The democracy and respect for human rights that our forefathers fought for must be upheld and guarded jealously by the state, not undermined.
In the words of Martin Luther King Jr, “Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.” Given the widespread ills in present-day governance, there is need for an informed and engaged citizenry that can hold duty bearers to account.
One way that we can re-legitimise and safeguard our right to assembly is by debunking the negative narratives associated with protests. To achieve this, we cannot ignore the role played by the media in shaping and perpetuating some of the negative opinions.
Many countries are going through significant political changes, many communicated by the media, and the government has realised this with increasing instances of media and internet shutdowns. Given the role media has played in shaping the negative narratives around protest in Kenya, it is only logical that we use the same media to change the negative narratives and create awareness about the constitutional right to protest.
That’s why Article 19 Eastern Africa, The Social Justice Centers Working Group, PAWA 254, the Kenya National Commission on Human Rights, the Civil Society Reference Group, the University of Nairobi Students Association, and the Kenya Human Rights Commission came together to launch the #FreeToProtest campaign aimed at de-stigmatising protesters.
We will be working with the media to identify and challenge the negative narratives around protests. The citizenry will also be engaged on the right to protest and be empowered to be able to demand better police practice to ensure that Kenyans are free to exercise their right to protest without fearing for their safety.
Intern, Article 19 Eastern Africa. [email protected]