Can Kenya Be Saved From Its Government?

President Moi harasses the press to block democracy

FOR four days in April, 15-year-old Margaret Nyamora could not locate her parents. Her mother and father, publishers of Society, a prominent Kenyan magazine, and three of the publication's reporters were whisked away by the Kenyan secret police. On April 21, the five journalists reappeared in a courthouse in the coastal city of Mombasa, over 200 miles from where they live and work. They were charged with 11 counts of sedition for writing and publishing information deemed offensive "to the person of the p resident and the government of Kenya."

This is not the Kenyan government's first attempt this year to muzzle the media, which has only recently become directly critical of President Daniel arap Moi and members of the ruling KANU party.

Last December, President Moi grudgingly gave in to growing calls within his country - and from the international community - to allow other political parties to organize and participate in upcoming elections. At the same time, Moi warned that a multiparty system was doomed to failure. "[It] will eventually destroy the people and is going to split the country into tribal groupings," he told the BBC in January.

The president is working hard to make his predictions come true, as evidenced by recent attacks against Kenyan news media. For example, Rose Lukalo, a news editor of the Kenya Television Network (KTN), was dismissed after she reported former Minister of Health Mwai Kibaki's Christmas-day resignation from the KANU party. She was threatened with disciplinary action by the head of the government-owned Kenya Times Media Trust, which has interests in KTN. She was later dismissed for "insubordination" and repo rting "without consulting authorities" at KTN. Another KTN journalist, Wangui Gachie, was ordered to stop covering stories "of a political nature" after she ran a follow-up report, citing evidence in Mr. Kibaki's resignation letter that the 1988 parliamentary, local, and KANU party elections had been rigged.

On Jan. 5, more than 50 police officers raided the offices of Kenya Litho Ltd., the printer of Society, and seized 30,000 copies of the Jan. 13 issue. It featured a photo of Moi, topped with a headline about Kibaki's desire to dislodge him from office. Later the same day, the government obtained an injunction prohibiting publication and distribution of the issue. The ban still has not been lifted.

Recent reports of police brutality and so-called "tribal" clashes in the western part of Kenya have also been a sore spot for the government. In March, management at the Nation newspaper, one of Kenya's two independent dailies, was ordered to suspend two editors for exposing the complicity of government security forces in recent outbreaks of violence in rural areas. These revelations were especially damaging to the Moi regime, which has attributed the violence to the resurgence of tribalism brought on by

the loosening of restrictions on political parties. The two editors, along with two Nation reporters, were briefly detained and questioned about the offending articles.

Kenya's parliament recently approved a bill that states: "In view of the freedom of expression enjoyed by the Kenyan press, which newspapers often misuse and abuse with grave consequences to national security, ... this House urges the government to introduce legislation to curb media irresponsibility and assist the press to maintain high ethical standards of journalism, with particular reference to truthfulness in reporting and publishing." George Odiko, the head of Kenya's Union of Journalists, was outr aged. "Talking of disciplining the press," he commented in March, "is talking of disciplining the people for whom that press is meant."

To be sure, Kenya has never been a paragon of free expression. In its recent annual report, "Attacks on the Press 1991," the Committee to Protect Journalists cited the detention by government security forces of six journalists working for the foreign media, as well as physical attacks on eight Kenyan journalists.

The current wave of attacks is especially troubling because it limits the range of views available to citizens at precisely the moment they are confronted with choices about who will represent them and what the future policies of their government will be.

The recent incidents of repression represent the desperation of a regime in the face of an increasingly popular opposition. As Gitobu Imanyara, the respected editor of the Nairobi Law Monthly, who was himself detained twice last year, recently pointed out: "The rising consistency of harassment against journalists, especially when viewed against the background of the democratization process taking place in the country, smacks of a conspiracy by a collapsing government to redeem itself through a discredite d system of misinformation, propaganda, and censorship."

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