- In a rare case, a journalist of Kenya's 'The Standard' newspaper is charged with criminal libel after writing about questionable ties between the country's business elite and the government of President Mwai Kibaki. For the first time since independence, the Kenyan government has charged a journalist with "criminal defamation".
The charges against 'The Standard' journalist Kamau Ngotho have already caused loud protests from the diplomatic corps in Nairobi and local and international press freedom organisations. The outcry against these landmark charges comes as Kenya is known as a country that normally respects press freedom, even under the years of ex-President Daniel arap Moi.
The clash between the press and authorities began on 11 January, when 'The Standard' deputy editor Kwamchetsi Makokha was summoned and questioned for four hours by Nairobi's Criminal Investigation Department as a result of a complaint filed by businessman John Macharia and others over a story by journalist Ngotho that appeared in the paper's 8 January issue, entitled, "Mr. Moneybags: big money games that run Kenya's politics".
The story described the small economic elite which, despite the change in government one year ago, continues to get rich as a result of its network of friendships within the administration. The newspaper's report warned that conflicts of interest could arise from the close links between some of President Mwai Kibaki's aides and leading Kenyan companies.
Editor Makokha was released after being questioned. His interrogation was ordered under Article 194 of Kenya's Criminal Code, concerning "criminal defamation". The legisalation dates back to colonial times and has never been used since the country's independence in 1963.
The 13 January issue of 'The Standard' carried a number of corrections to the article, along with apologies to "all persons concerned" for the errors. Nonetheless, that same day, Mr Ngotho was formally charged with "publishing a defamatory article" after he presented himself to the authorities.
Previously, a warrant for his arrest was issued. The journalist was freed on bail of approximately euro 200. A hearing has been set for 17 January. If convicted, Mr Ngotho faces up to four years in prison.
Protests to the rare incident are growing. Nine foreign embassies in Nairobi, including those of the US, Britain, Germany and Canada, quickly issued a joint statement voicing outrage, accusing the authorities of breaking "one of their most important electoral promises," namely to guarantee press freedom, and urging President Kibaki to combat corruption rather than try to intimidate the media.
Maina Kiai, the head of Kenya's National Commission on Human Rights, said criminal libel was "a tactic used by dictatorships and repressive regimes to intimidate and gag the press." Kenya, not even during the troubled years under ex-President Moi, has not experienced such state tactics since colonial times.
The Paris-based press freedom group Reporters sans Frontières (RSF) today issued a protest, noting its concerns over these new developments in Kenya. "We will never cease to protest against governments that try to sanction defamation with prison sentences, but the enthusiasm displayed by Kenyan authorities in using an exceptional procedure to bring charges against 'The Standard' is particularly worrying," RSF said in a statement.
- If the persons affected wish to issue a denial or qualify what has been published by the newspaper, they have ways to proceed other than bringing legal action, especially if it could result in a journalist receiving a prison sentence, the group added. RSF however welcomed the surprising joint protest statement issued by foreign embassies in Nairobi.
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