On Tuesday (30th January, 2018), Kenyan opposition leader Raila Odinga conducted his own ceremonial “swearing in” ceremony as “people’s president”. The ruling government shut down the three TV news agencies that covered the event.
On the 1st of February, the High Court suspended this shutdown for two weeks until the case is heard in court, however the TV channels remain down hours after the ruling was given.
On the 8th of August, 2017, Kenya went to the polls to elect their next president. It was one of the most hotly contented elections in the country’s modern history. The two main contenders were then-president Uhuru Kenyatta, and Raila Odinga, leader of the National Super Alliance (NASA). Odinga previously lost to Kenyatta in the 2013 elections.
Kenyatta won the 2017 elections to continue his second and final term as president. However Kenya’s Chief Justice David Marega annulled the results on August 8th. The judge who presided said, “[The election commission] failed, neglected, or refused to conduct the presidential election in a manner consistent with the dictates of the Constitution.” The court, stated that the results were “neither transparent nor verifiable”. The electoral commission refused access to poll data and was held responsible for the mistake.
This was noted to be a landmark ruling, likely to be the first time in Africa where the court has ruled in favour of the opposition regarding election fraud. Kenyatta expressed displeasure with the ruling, issuing thinly veiled threats against Chief Justice Marega.
The re-run of the elections took place on October 26th, 2017. Odinga boycotted the race. Kenyatta won the second poll with 98% of the vote on a turnout of only 39%. In November the same year, the Supreme Court upheld Kenyatta’s victory and he was sworn in as President. Odinga in statements since has hinted that the court made this decision under duress and vowed to embark on a campaign to “restore democracy in the country”. He called for his followers to protest the results.
On Tuesday (30th January, 2018), opposition leader Raila Odinga conducted his own ceremonial “swearing in” ceremony at a peaceful gathering in Nairobi, pronouncing that he was responding to a higher calling to “assume the office of the people’s president of the Republic of Kenya”.
The ceremony lasted a mere 20 minutes, and was meant to be covered by Kenyan broadcasting stations NTV, KTN, and Citizen TV. The three private stations were taken off air as they began to cover the event. On Wednesday, police arrested the person who administered Odinga’s “oath”, and the incumbent government said that the stations would stay off air indefinitely. Meanwhile, NTV journalists informed Reuters that they feared arrest. BBC reporters said that this kind of media shutdown had never happened before in modern democratic Kenya.
The Interior Ministry has stated that this incident is a security issue, and that Odinga’s actions were an attempt to “subvert or overthrow” the government and “would have led to the deaths of thousands of innocent Kenyans”. The Ministry Secretary called the main opposition party NASA an “organised criminal group”.
On the 1st of February, the High Court suspended the shutdown of the three news agencies for two weeks until the case is heard, however the TV channels remain down hours after the ruling was given, inviting questions about whether the government intends to comply with the order.
This episode that has been called an “attack on media” has invited strong critique from Kenyan civil society and international spectators, as well as opposition. Journalists have said that the incident is one of “unprecedented intimidation” that is antithetical to the constitution.
The US State Department and the European Union External Action Service have both issued statements condemning both Odinga’s self-inauguration and the government reaction “to shut down, intimidate, and restrict the media”. Both agencies recognised Kenyatta’s election as president and emphasised the importance of respecting the legal freedom of expression enshrined in the Kenyan Constitution. They urge the lifting of the ban.
Odinga has denied accusations that his actions were an attempt to steal power. “I am not a megalomaniac. I am a very reasonable Kenyan,” he said.
Meanwhile, the news channels continue to livestream their content online
Our assessment is that the media shutdown is detrimental to Kenyan rule of law. The incident is reminiscent of the censorship imposed prior to the institution of multi-party politics in 1991. We believe that in these circumstances it is essential that the nation maintains a free and healthy press, as well as a multiparty system to ensure a balance of power. In the meantime, this incident is a black mark on Kenyatta’s rule in the eyes of the international community.