Nairobi – In an unprecedented act, Kenya’s government this week indefinitely shut down three major TV news channels, instantly transforming a partisan political dispute into an angry nationwide debate on fundamental freedoms.
Thousands of opposition supporters had crammed into a downtown park in Nairobi on Tuesday to watch a strange act of political pantomime.
There, they saw their leader, Raila Odinga, swear himself in as “people’s president” in defiance of last year’s flawed election that saw Uhuru Kenyatta win a second term.
Odinga appeared a lonely figure on the makeshift podium after his partners in the National Super Alliance (NASA) coalition failed to show up.
The short ceremony followed a long wait but was enthusiastically cheered by the crowd.
Unusually, police officers stayed away and there was no tear gas, no gunfire and no violence. Afterwards, the park emptied quickly.
The event might have been a minor footnote to Kenya’s lengthy, disputed and sometimes-deadly election season.
But that changed when the government decided to shut down three major television stations that planned to provide live coverage – a move that has now sparked a political storm and a legal challenge.
“This could’ve been a complete non-issue,” said Nanjala Nyabola, a political analyst, “instead, they’ve given people a rallying point.”
“It’s reinforced the idea that the Kenyatta administration is an authoritarian one, undoing the legacy of free speech that people take very seriously.”
‘It’s plain intimidation’
The private stations Citizen, KTN and NTV were taken off the air on Tuesday morning, while the state-run KBC and Kenyatta-owned K24 continued to broadcast.
On Wednesday, Interior Minister Fred Matiang’i doubled-down, saying the stations would remain shut off “until further notice”.
He described the mock swearing-in of Odinga as “a well-choreographed attempt to subvert or overthrow” the government and alleged that media “participated in the furtherance of this illegal act”.
An hour and a half later, armed plainclothes police officers were stationed outside the headquarters of Nation Media Group, which runs NTV, according to Linus Kaikai, a Nation journalist plainclothes.
Forewarned by police sources that they would be arrested if they stepped outside, Kaikai and his colleagues stayed in the office till morning. The police disappeared late in the night.
“It’s plain intimidation,” said Kaikai. “If there’s an issue they could call us to the police station. Why come here to arrest at night? It’s not so much a legal process as a psychological game, to try and break you.”
Following a petition filed by a civil society group on Thursday, a High Court judge ordered the shutdown suspended while the case is heard.
Despite the apparent reprieve, veteran anti-corruption activist John Githongo finds a queasy familiarity in what is going on.
“This takes us back to the 1980s,” he said, a time of authoritarianism under President Daniel arap Moi, a “much darker more restrictive age” when democracy was still a dream.
The freedoms Kenyans enjoy today were hard-won over many years and are jealously protected, though they remain imperfect.
Legitimacy and authoritarianism
Last year’s election was “a complete mess” said Githongo: the initial August poll was annulled by the Supreme Court and the subsequent rerun boycotted by the opposition. That handed Kenyatta a landslide victory and a crisis of legitimacy as 60 percent of voters stayed at home.
“This is a government that is running out of options so is resorting to a sharp authoritarian turn,” he said.
Attacking the press, he argued, was a self-defeating move that has expanded questions over the government’s legitimacy beyond the arena of party politics.
Even those who were against Odinga’s swearing-in “are more unhappy with the government’s reaction to it,” he said.
But while the extended shutdown is without precedent in Kenya, Nyabola said it is not a rupture so much as a tightening of the vice.
Since Kenyatta took office for the first time in 2013, “the heat has been turning up on the media, and they’ve been complicit in giving up the media space, cosying up to government,” she said.
Closing down TV channels, threatening to prosecute journalists for doing their jobs and sending police to loiter menacingly outside bureaus must be seen in this context, Nyabola said.
“Is this alarming? Yes. Does it raise the stakes? Absolutely. But it’s an escalation of a process that’s been underway for a long time.”