Masked, armed police Thursday stormed the offices of a leading Kenyan media company in a raid seen as punishment for reports criticizing the government's dismal record on corruption.
Dozens of officers carrying AK-47 assault rifles ransacked the Nairobi editorial headquarters of Kenya Television Network (KTN) and the downtown printing press of The Standard, Kenya's oldest newspaper.
The country's interior minister, John Michuki, says the clampdown is necessary to assert the state's authority in the face of repeated verbal attacks on the administration. "If you rattle a snake, you must be prepared to be bitten by it," he told journalists Thursday.
Key opposition leader Raila Odinga, meanwhile, says the raid was an attempt by the government to "take us back to the dark days of the 1960s, 70s and 80s."
"It is unbelievable that in the 21st century this kind of thing can be happening. It is a complete reversal of the democratic gains Kenya has made in the last 15 years," Mr. Odinga says.
The midnight raid was by far the most dramatic attack yet by state forces on the country's robust independent press, which has freely criticized president Mwai Kibaki's embattled administration over its dithering efforts to fight graft.
Tens of thousands of copies of Thursday's editions were torched in yards outside The Standard Group's print warehouses, where equipment was also badly damaged.
"Everyone has been shocked by this. It is totally inexcusable and totally unacceptable," says David Okoth a computer security consultant from Nairobi. "There are legal channels to use if some story offends you, so how can you claim to be a government which champions the rule of law and then you are the ones who are going around breaking it?"
"It reminds us of the bad old days [under former president Daniel arap Moi] and we can only pray we are not heading back there," says Mr. Okoth.
Mr. Kibaki's administration has been under fire since an explosive report written by the country's former anticorruption chief John Githongo, who fled to Britain afraid for his life a year ago, was leaked to national and international media in January.
In the report, Mr. Githongo claims several serving and former ministers in Kibaki's Cabinet were extensively involved in a series of shady deals designed to loot $262 million of state funds, in a country where more than half the 31 million population lives on less than $2 a day.
Two of the most senior names on the list, David Mwiraria, the former finance minister, and Kiraitu Murungi, the former energy minister, have both resigned, vowing to clear their names.
The vice president, Moody Awori, and several other key Kibaki allies have been forced to appear before police and parliamentary investigation boards to answer claims they assisted in grand theft of state funds.
All are said to have had knowledge of several corrupt national security contracts, including one for a terror-proof passport printing system and another for police forensics laboratories, where money was paid to fictitious companies for work which was never carried out.
Githongo claims the money was earmarked to be routed back into a political war chest for the ruling party to use for future elections.
No charges have been brought against the men, who all deny any wrongdoing, despite vociferous calls for action from Kenyan civil society and most news organizations, including KTN and The Standard.
"We believe this is a direct and blatant attempt to undermine the freedom of the press ... guaranteed by the Constitution. It is also intended to paralyze our business," said Tom Mshindi, the chief executive officer of The Standard Group.
A police statement, however, defended the officers' actions saying they had acted in the interests of national security, adding that "evidence pointed to an intention of inciting ethnic hate and animosity leading to a breach of the peace."
A US Embassy spokesman said Thursday that the raid was preceded by "threats directed against the Standard from representatives of the Kenyan Government."
"We call upon the government of Kenya to disavow today's actions, identify and discipline those responsible, and cease efforts to intimidate the media," the embassy said in a statement.
The surprise raid came as three Standard journalists, arrested Tuesday, were Thursday afternoon charged in Nairobi's magistrates' courts with printing 'an alarming publication.'
The newspaper led its Saturday edition with a story alleging a clandestine meeting between Kibaki and Kalonzo Musyoka, a key opposition figure who helped lead the campaign to vote down a new constitution favored by Kibaki in a national referendum in November.