Tuesday, December 16, 2008



By David Ohito and Maseme Machuka

Police brutally broke up a peaceful demonstration protesting the draconian law meant to suppress press freedom and arrested seven journalists even as Prime Minister Raila Odinga gave the strongest assurance from Government that the law could be reviewed.

The arrests put the police on the spot for the second time over the controversial Bill on the media. On Friday last week, four journalists were arrested at the Jamhuri Day celebrations in Nairobi and held for nine hours before being released without a charge.

Even as police chased journalists through the streets of the city on Monday, Prime Minister Raila Odinga assured Media owners and journalists that the freedom to broadcast and publish would not be compromised by the coalition Government

The arrests immediately sparked an array of condemnation from lawyers, civil society and the media and Cabinet ministers.

Agriculture Minister William Ruto described the arrests as "unfortunate, disturbing and uncalled for" as he appealed for dialogue to prevail.

Lands Minister James Orengo expressed fears the country was sliding back to the dark days of the single party regime. "Such arrests have the potential to undermine the coalition Government. Some of us cannot stomach fresh oppression that denies people basic freedoms of association and speech," Orengo said.

Raila moved to allay fears of the fresh threats to media freedom after receiving a petition from a high-powered team of Media Owners Association, the Editor’s Guild, Kenya Union of Journalists, and the Kenya Private Sector Alliance who presented him with a petition to take to President Kibaki. Said Raila: "Kenyans have fought so hard for the freedom… they lost blood and we cannot afford to return to the long gone dark days."

Raila met with the Media Owners Association chairman Mr Linus Gitahi, The Standard Group’s CEO, Mr Paul Wanyagah and Royal Media Services CEO, Mr SK Macharia. The meeting was attended by Mr Macharia Gaitho, Mr Herman Igambi, (Editors’ Guild), Mr Steven Smith (Kenya Private Sector Alliance) and Mr Eric Orina (Kenya Union of Journalists) among other media stakeholders. Gitahi is also the Chief Executive Officer of the Nation Media Group.

The Journalists arrested on Monday by Police included Standard Group photographer Mr Stafford Ondego, Mr Peterson Githaiga (Nation), Mr Jack Owuor (Nairobi Star), Mr Wanyonyi Daniel (Citizen), Mr George Kebaso (Kenya Times), Ms Carol Gatura (K24), and Mr Francis Osure (Freelance).

Rolling back democratic gains
The seven were arrested as they went to cover a demo. They were taken to the Central Police station where their fingerprints were taken before they were arrained in a Kibera court. They were later charged with unlawful assembly. They pleaded not guilty and were released on a cash bail of Sh15,000 each.

Senior counsel and former Kabete MP Paul Muite represented them.

"Anybody who thinks that they can roll back democratic gains of Kenyans gained since 1990 through loss of lives will be mistaken. We gained these rights by blood through Sabasaba riots and November 1992 demos and 1997," said Muite.
The issue of the media is not between the press and Government but an issue touching the heart of all Kenyans. The era of arrests and trumping up of charges is long gone."

As pressure piled on the Government to amend the law, the Law Society of Kenya (LSK) raised concerns on the role of MPs in the legislative process.

The LSK faulted MPs for abdicating their duty as people’s representatives, and allowing the passage of unpopular Bills, which they later deny they were part of.
"There is a major worry as to whether there isn’t actually a disconnect between the people and their representatives at the house of Parliament." LSK chairman Okong’o Omogeni said when addressing the press at LSK offices.

East Africa Law Society secretary general Mr James Aggrey Mwamu said it was unlawful to arrest members of the Press who were participating in a peaceful demo against draconian laws.

Clarion coordinator Geoffrey Birundu asked the Government to be more sensitive and ensure that the bill is not assented to. "This is reminiscent of the clamour for pluralism where people were arrested and charges trumped up. It only happens in uncivilized societies," he said.

Kenya Journalists Association said the media would not relent on their fight to freedom until the bill was withdrawn.

The journalists who were arrested had followed a procession that started outside the 680 Hotel to the Standard Group offices along Kenyatta Avenue, The Nation Centre, Kimathi Street before joining City Hall Way. At this point police led by Central Deputy OCPD Richard Muguai intercepted them. His pleas to have the scribes abandon their demo fell on deaf ears. Administration Police intercepted them on Parliament Road and dispersed them. Police lobbed teargas unto the protesting scribes before arresting the seven.

Parliament passed the Communication (Amendment) Bill on Wednesday last week sparking widespread condemnation and protests.