By Katie Nguyen
NAIROBI – Masked police armed with automatic rifles forced a Nairobi TV station off the air and raided its sister Standard newspaper on Thursday, provoking outrage among Kenyans and Western nations.
Thousands of newspapers were burned at
the Standard printing press during the operation, the most aggressive assault on a mainstream media house since Kenya’s 1963 independence.
The raid, which shocked Kenyans accustomed to a vibrant media since President Mwai Kibaki took over in 2002, came days after police arrested three Standard journalists over a weekend story saying Kibaki secretly met rival Kalonzo Musyoka to discuss bringing him back into the cabinet.
Shortly after midnight on Thursday, scores of police armed with AK-47s stormed the offices of the Standard group’s Kenya Television Network (KTN), security camera footage showed.
They seized transmission equipment and computer hard disks, putting the station off the air until the afternoon.
“The extra-judicial settling of scores has no place in any country which believes in rule of law,” protested Tom Mshindi, CEO of Standard Group, Kenya’s second biggest media house.
The police officers, who presented no warrant, detained four KTN staff members in a Nairobi police station before being told to release them two hours later, KTN said.
A police statement said the raid followed evidence of a plot to incite ethnic hatred that would threaten national security. It alleged Standard reporters were paid to make up articles.
Internal Security Minister John Michuki said the raid was a “matter of state security”, adding: “The police must be allowed to do their job. When you rattle a snake you must prepare yourself to be bitten.”
The raid alarmed Western donors, already concerned by graft scandals that have forced three of Kibaki’s ministers to resign.
The U.S. embassy denounced the “current campaign of vilification and harassment of selected media” and said such “acts of thuggery have no place in an open democratic society”.
Another statement from 28 Western embassies called the raids “an unprecedented attack on the freedom of the media in Kenya”.
It urged the government to immediately investigate “what eye-witness reports suggest were cases of assault, theft, unlawful destruction of property, kidnapping and harassment”.
“BACK TO DARK DAYS”
Callers to radio programmes expressed disbelief and anger about the raids in a country where reporters in recent years have escaped the repression of many African countries.
Witnesses said the police smashed doors and broke padlocks at the Standard presses before forcing workers to lie on the ground and setting light to thousands of copies of Thursday’s edition outside the building. Police denied burning papers.
Opposition leaders and local media denounced the raids as a throwback to the autocratic days of former leader Daniel arap Moi. Some saw it as reprisal for relentless recent media attacks on the government over corruption.
“This is taking us back to the dark days of the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s,” Raila Odinga, an opposition leader, told Reuters.
More than 1,000 opposition supporters protesting against Kibaki gathered outside the Standard offices shouting in Swahili: “Aende! (Go)”.
Kenya maintains tough press laws drafted during the Moi era, when many journalists were arrested and beaten.
Kibaki succeeded Moi on a reformist platform in 2002 but many Kenyans said the media crackdown smacked of Moi’s strong-arm tactics.
“In the Moi days we blamed Moi and his henchmen for such acts. In 2002 we chased him and his hooligans out of town, but it seems Kibaki wants to take us back to those dark days,” media commentator Tom Mboya said.
The U.S.-based Committee to Protect Journalists protested at the “outrageous” and “dictatorial” raid. “Even were the newspaper to be at fault in some way over the story, there are other ways to deal with this,” its Africa coordinator Julia Crawford said.
The three journalists detained on Tuesday appeared in court on Thursday charged with publishing alarming statements. They denied the charges and were released on bail until April 24. — Reuter