Tuesday, December 16, 2008



December 16, 2008
By Times Team

THE government yesterday heightened its war on the media, arresting 11 journalists even as Prime Minister Raila Odinga promised to intervene in the matter. The journalists, who included Kenya Times reporter George Kebasso, were arrested when police fired teargas canisters to disperse a demonstration staged to oppose the punitive Communications (Amendment) Bill 2008 presently awaiting presidential assent.

Reliable police sources said that the order to arrest the scribes came directly from Police Commissioner Major Gen. (rtd) Mohamed Hussein Ali through the Nairobi Provincial Police Officer (PPO) Njue Njagi. And hours after the arrest, Cabinet Ministers James Orengo (Lands) and Mutula Kilonzo criticised the harassment on journalists and urged police to allow them to press for their rights.

Speaking at Ogongo divisional headquarters in Lambwe, Suba district, Orengo expressed concern that the democratic gains made by the country over the years were being eroded by some reckless security officers and political leaders. Orengo called for the retraining of all police officers in the country on human rights, press freedom and community policing.

Mutula on his part told Police Commissioner Hussein Ali to re-examine the operations of his force, in particular on the issue of human rights. "The incidents that have taken place in the past four days have simply dented our image across the globe. I just hope this is not the kind of Kenya we are striving to build," said Mutula.

And during the demonstration, scores of journalists were also injured as they clashed with anti-riot police in the city centre who blocked them from staging the peaceful demonstration that would have culminated in a petition that would have been delivered to MPs at parliament buildings.

The journalists, doning black T-shirts with writings calling on members of parliament to pay tax and the free flow of information had an exchange with hundreds of armed policemen before teargas canisters were hurled at them causing confusion and uncertainty in the city centre for the better part of the morning. Teargas canisters were also lobbed at journalists who had gathered outside the police station to cover the proceedings.

"The president must listen to the voice of the majority and say no to this draconian law! Poghisio must go!" chanted the agitated members of the press. The journalists later dispersed into Uhuru Park grounds where police on horsebacks chased and arrested most of them cramming them in waiting police vans before driving them to Central Police Station where they were booked and had their finger prints taken. Some nursed serious injuries after the demo.

Others who were arrested included The Standard photographer Stafford Ondego, Nation’s Peterson Githaiga, Nairobi Star photographer Jack Owuor Odera, Andrew Wanyonyi Ndiema, Carol Wandia Gatura, Francis Osure Odera and Nicodemus Ouma among others. Lawyer Paul Muite arrived a few minutes later and was allowed access to the arrested journalists alongside several others who had arrived to show solidarity with their locked up colleagues.

"I want to see my clients who have just been booked in relation to a demonstration that was violently aborted," asked Muite on arrival at the station. After a brief argument with the Acting Officer Commanding Police Division (OCPD), Richard Mugwai, Muite emerged and told the anxious journalists that their colleagues were heading to Kibera law courts.

The journalists were later charged before Kibera Chief Magistrate Maureen Odera with taking part in unlawful assembly and were each released on a cash bail of Sh15,000 pending the hearing of the case on January 9, 2009. This transpired hours after Raila, who had met Media Owners over the controversial Bill 2008 assured them of the government’s commitment to uphold freedom of the speech. The Prime Minister at the same time received a petition presented by Linus Gitahi of the Nation Media Group on behalf of all media owners which he pledged to deliver to President Mwai Kibaki.

According to Gitahi, the petition asks President Kibaki not to assent to the controversial Communications Amendment Bill passed last week by Parliament until the offending clauses that empowers Internal Security Minister to raid media houses and seize broadcast equipment is deleted. Addressing the press at his office after holding a meeting with the media owners, Odinga expressed concern that the offending sections in the Communications (Amendment) Bill were not amended as per their earlier agreement when he met media owners sometimes back.

"It is unfortunate that the Bill happened to have been passed without amendments to those concerns your raised earlier in our meetings", said Odinga. Speaking at his Treasury offices, Odinga reiterated that the government upholds the freedom of press and speech, which he said did not come by freely but was fought for many years.

"We have come a long way in the fight for free press and freedom of speech. The fight has been long and we do not want to compromise the gains made so far", said the premier. The Prime Minister, however, expressed concern about irresponsible journalism and asked the media to exercise responsibility at all times.

He said the solution to these problems is not to resort to draconian legislation against the media but amendments to the Communications Bill clauses and change of attitude within the media is the way forward. The Prime Minister challenged the Media Owners Association to move towards actualising self-regulation in the media noting that as a country, the government and the media needs to consult regularly.

Odinga said it was sad to witness the mishandling of journalists and civil rights activists during the Jamhuri Day celebrations at Nyayo National Stadium last week but criticised the journalists for using a national day to stage demonstrations against the Media Bill. "We all make mistakes but the only way out is to dialogue," said the Prime Minister in reference to the arrests and mishandling of journalists by presidential guards last Friday.

Mr. Odinga said the beating of journalists at Nyayo National Stadium reminded him of the old dark days where the previous single party government muzzled free press. The Prime Minister assured the Media Owners that he will present the petition to the President on their behalf for immediate action.

Pressure has continued to mount on President Kibaki not to assent the bill until Parliament amends the offending Section 88 of the proposed law to get rid of powers vested in the security minister to raid media houses and take away broadcast equipment at will. Civil society groups, religious organisations, Kenyans and politicians from all walks of lives have condemned Parliament from passing the law that will gag the press.