Thursday, February 21, 2008



By Jerry Okungu

Buried in the fourth page of the East African Standard of November 9, 2006, there was a story headline saying: Foreign Journalists held at airport.

The story talked of eight international journalists who had come to Nairobi to cover the ongoing United Nations Conference on Climate Change and had spent four days at the airport. These science reporters from Iraq, Jordan and Cameroon had been detained at the Jomo Kenyatta International Airport all that time.

According to the airport authorities, the affected journalists had travel documents that were either incomplete or not in order. Kenyan authorities equally denied that the affected journalists had been detained. They maintained that the said journalists were free to leave the country at any time but had chosen to remain at the airport’s transit lounge in the hope that they would be allowed into the country to attend the Gigiri conference

The journalists affected were Prof. Gervais of the University of Yaounde in Cameroon, Mr. Louse Ngo Pom, Cameroon’s radio reporter, Mr. Hanine Aframahi, Mr. Mahmoud Aldwiri and Mr. Janfar Alomary of ATV and Radio Jordan. Others were Mr. Kawthar Abdelamir, Mr. Haddi Hassan Hadi and Mr. Haydar Nigin all of Iraq newspapers.

In all this drama of foreign journalists being barred from entering Kenyan soil on grounds of incomplete or improper documents, a science journalist from Senegal had strong things to say about the attitude of African governments towards journalists. Obviously speaking as a journalist in sympathy with his foreign comrades he went on to say that what the Kenyan immigration officials did was scandalous to say the least.

Let me first empathize with our visitors who were delayed at the Jomo Kenyatta Airport for 96 hours without being allowed into the country. That is a long time by any standards especially when there may be no facilities to have a shower and change clothes.

Having said that, I have to say that those who will be just too happy to blame the Kenya government are missing one detail. That international travel has become expensive, risky and inconvenient worldwide. No country I know in this world ever takes entry into its borders by foreign nationals lightly especially if these nationals are originating from regions that are permanently on the spotlight for terrorist activities.

I may be wrong and stand corrected, but if we had journalists coming from all over the world including Iraq, Jordan and Cameroon, why didn’t they make sure that their papers were in order before they left their countries of origin?

Is it our responsibility as a country to let in any Tom, Dick and Harry under the pretext of attending an international forum even if they don’t have proper documents? Why would Kenyan authorities bend rules for foreign nationals who are careless enough to travel without proper documents? Don’t we all know just too well that some of the most attractive targets for terrorist attacks are major international forums like our ongoing Climate Change, that terrorist cells would know in advance would include Americans, Israelis and other soft targets for their attacks? Being a journalist does not give anybody a license to enter a foreign country without proper papers and then stage a sit in at the airport.

To drive my point home, there is no Kenyan I know who can leave this country to travel to Cameroon, Nigeria, Senegal, Togo or any African country for that matter without a valid international passport and a valid visa issued by the embassy of that country or its appointed agent. Kenya Airways or any other carrier would not allow them to board the aircraft without proof of a valid passport and a valid visa. The only exceptions for Kenyan nationals are Ethiopia, Ghana, Rwanda, Tanzania and Uganda that have reciprocal arrangements with Kenya.

For countries like Ivory Coast, Togo, Senegal, Mali and Cameroon, even having a visa is not good enough. A Kenyan would still have to go through the rigors of embarrassing inaudible questions in French; never mind that Kenyans are not French speakers. I’m talking from personal experience in the countries I have been to in the recent past.

Let me tell you what I must have as a Kenyan before I leave my country to travel to West Africa, the Middle East, Europe, Asia and America. If my trip takes me to Nigeria, Cameroon, Ivory Coast, Senegal, Mali or Togo, I will have to fill my passport with five different visas. Having accomplished that at my cost, I will need my health certificate, my return ticket, proof of cash to sustain me in each country and letters of invitation from each of those countries. Any omission on my side can cost me dearly at any of my ports of entry.

Two weeks ago, I organized for three Kenyan journalists to accompany me to Nigeria to cover an AU meeting which was to take place in Abuja from October 30 to October 31last month. Despite fulfilling all the conditions of travel, applying for visas and paying the mandatory Ks 3950, two of them, both from the Nation Media Group were denied visas simply because they were journalists! The third journalist from KBC only managed to get her visa only hours to the deadline- the day of travel on intervention of Kenya’s Attorney General.

Mr. Armand Faye, a Senegalese journalist may be right to be angry with Kenya and embarrassed on behalf of the continent, but I will advise him to go and tell that to Presidents Wade and Obassanjo and fellow Heads of State of the ECOWAS, the region that allows free movement of their nationals without visas yet puts stringent conditions for nationals outside their region.

As much as I share in the sentiments expressed by Faye over the incident, I will support the Kenyan authorities to the hilt in keeping our borders safe. We have suffered untold terrorist attacks that Islamic countries in West Africa have never suffered. It is this 1980 Norfolk bomb blast, 1998 August terrorist attack in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam, 9/11 thing in New York and terrorist bombings in Iraq, Gaza, Tel Aviv, Beirut, London, Spain, Italy and Egypt that have scared us and put the whole world on edge.

Can we blame a poor immigration official at Jomo Kenyatta Airport who is simply barring foreigners without valid travel documents from entering our borders?
I don’t think so.