Kenya’s About-Face: Fear for Democracy as Dissent Is Muzzled
Posted February 4, 2018 8:02 p.m. EST
NAIROBI, Kenya — The most widely watched television stations in Kenya are shuttered, and the government has defied a court order to return them to the air. Opposition politicians are under arrest, and journalists have also been threatened with jail. And the government has officially designated some of its opponents “an organized criminal group.”
“This is a new crisis for democracy,” said Willy Mutunga, a former chief justice of the Kenyan Supreme Court, who left the bench in 2016. “Defying a court order is subverting the rule of law.”
The events in Kenya over the past week are a stunning about-face in a country praised mere months ago as a shining example of democracy, when the Supreme Court overturned a presidential election, and the winner, President Uhuru Kenyatta, agreed to abide by the ruling. That case was hailed as a powerful display of judicial independence and a win for the rule of law.
But now many Kenyans fear their country is sliding away from democracy. The coming days, they say, may be critical in determining what direction the country will take.
“Kenya hasn’t seen anything like this before — this is unheard-of,” said Ahmednasir Abdullahi, who represented Kenyatta before the Supreme Court last year in several election cases. “When there is a court order you don’t obey, you look like a rogue state.”
The U.S. government said in a statement last week that it was “deeply concerned” about the interference with the media, and the U.N. Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights called on the government to “respect and implement” the court order to end the blackout.
In Kenya, some are now likening Kenyatta to Daniel Arap Moi, the authoritarian president who ruled the country for 24 years, before finally leaving office in 2002. Moi outlawed political parties, banned many foreign and local newspapers and magazines, and detained and tortured those designated as political opponents, including writers and intellectuals.
But shutting down broadcast stations “never happened, even under Moi,” said George Kegoro, executive director of the Kenya Human Rights Commission, a nongovernmental group that is a leading human-rights authority in the country.
The current tensions have their roots in last year’s presidential election, when Raila Odinga, Kenyatta’s longtime political rival, challenged his loss to the president. The Supreme Court ordered a new election, but Odinga withdrew before the second vote, saying the process remained unfair.
When Odinga’s supporters boycotted the polls, they handed Kenyatta an easy victory. Odinga refused to concede defeat and threatened to take a parallel “oath” as “the people’s president.”
The government said it would regard the action as treason, and Western diplomats pleaded with Odinga to cancel the ceremony. But he pushed forward with the “oath,” and the U.S. government, in a formal statement, stopped just short of denouncing the move as unconstitutional.
Kenyatta summoned media owners last week and warned them not to cover the Odinga event at Uhuru Park, in downtown Nairobi. But on Tuesday morning, Kenya’s biggest stations broadcast live from the park before Odinga’s arrival.
Government officials then disconnected them. Odinga did take the oath that day.
On Wednesday, three journalists at NTV slept in the newsroom after being tipped off by police sources that officers were stationed around the building, waiting to arrest them. They spent Thursday night in a safe house, and on Friday, a court granted them anticipatory bail, effectively protecting them from arrest. So far, they have not been charged with any crime.
A court in Nairobi on Thursday ordered the government to restore the stations “with immediate effect.”
But by early Monday morning, it had still not complied.
The government’s aggressive stance toward the media and the political opposition may have ended up lending legitimacy to what many observers had dismissed as political theater by Odinga.
“The whole world was condemning Raila Odinga for what he had done,” said Abdullahi, the president’s onetime lawyer. “The government had the moral high ground. For me, this is the government shooting itself in the foot.” Though Kenya’s constitution guarantees freedom of expression and freedom of the press, the Kenyatta government, and the president personally, have long had a rocky relationship with the media. Kenyatta has said on several occasions that newspapers are useful only for “wrapping meat.”
Last year, Kenyatta aides issued a directive to suspend all government advertising in four major newspapers, and several journalists have been fired for refusing to toe the government line in their coverage.
But the television blackout is universally agreed to be the most dramatic showdown between the government and the press in the history of Kenya’s young democracy. The shuttered stations reach nearly 70 percent of Kenyan viewers, according to the latest figures from GeoPoll, a survey firm.
None but the wealthiest Kenyans can watch television online, where the stations continue to broadcast.
The government is discussing reopening the stations with the media outlets, conditioning a return to the air on their agreement to coverage restrictions, according to an official with knowledge of the confidential conversations. The media outlets deny any negotiations.
If government officials continue to disregard the order to turn the stations back on, the court could cite them for contempt, or even order them jailed, lawyers say. If those orders are also ignored, that would be a clear sign of a weakened judiciary — and a teetering democracy.
But a bigger concern now is whether the government takes action against Odinga. An arrest, many fear, might be greeted by widespread public resistance and set off violence — especially since the crackdown seems to have polarized ordinary Kenyans.
“We are hurting as a country,” said Job Ogutu, a mechanic who works in downtown Nairobi. “The gains we made are no more. The government is supposed to be the custodian of all laws but its using these same laws to hurt and oppress its people.” Many have abandoned hope for dialogue between the two political leaders and are instead digging in behind the man they support.
That is the turn of events that Mutunga, the former chief justice, finds most worrying, because each political heavyweight could muster crowds of thousands to do his bidding.
“I keep on having nightmares about a possibility of an ethnic civil war,” he said.
Mutunga pointed to the widespread conflict that followed the 2007 election.
“That’s our history,” he said. “We have had these issues before. And now one side controls the machinery of violence — they have the army, they have the police. Who is going to restrain them?”