Africa, Headlines, Human Rights

RIGHTS-KENYA: Are the Watchdogs Being Muzzled?

Joyce Mulama

NAIROBI, May 11 2004 (IPS) - “The stability of any government is measured by the freedom it gives to the press. If the government is clean in its dealings, then I see no reason why it should be worried about the press,” says Kenyan media activist Mitch Odero. Recent statements by authorities indicate that they have a less sanguine view of the country’s journalists, however.

Odero’s comments come in the wake of a letter issued by the head of the public service and cabinet secretary, Francis Muthaura, warning civil servants against releasing classified information to the press. The Apr. 27 document says there will be dire consequences for those who disobey the directive.

“Officers found to be releasing classified information to unauthorised persons should be suspended from the service or recommended for expulsion depending on the gravity of the subject matter,” notes the letter, which comes on the heels of several media exposés of alleged government corruption. This timing has caused the directive to be viewed with considerable suspicion by reporters.

One of the cases highlighted by the press concerns a government contract for passport printing equipment. A French company, Francois Charles Oberthur Fiduciaire, was awarded the contract even though the estimated costs it quoted exceeded those of three other firms. The French company was also spared going through the complete procurement process.

Senior officials from the Ministries of Finance and Home Affairs are accused of inflating the price of the contract, and awarding it to Francois Charles Oberthur Fiduciaire illegally. After news of the matter broke on Apr. 20, government halted the project pending the outcome of an inquiry.

Another case involving Trade Minister Mukhisa Kituyi dates back to February. He stands accused of influencing a state-owned cement company to grant illegal discounts worth millions of dollars to its suppliers.

Kituyi reportedly ignored the recommendations of a government audit team, which said the cement company should cut these volume-related discounts. Although the minister denied any wrongdoing, parliament has demanded an explanation from him about the matter. The suppliers have also gone to court in a bid to have the discounts maintained.

For its part, the Kenya Union of Journalists (KUJ) wants Muthaura’s warning withdrawn as a matter or urgency.

“The warning is a form of dictatorship. Why would the government want the people not to give out information? Is there anything it is hiding?” asked Tervil Okoko, the organisation’s chairman, in an interview with IPS.

Part of the explanation for the letter may lie in the fact that authorities appear increasingly concerned about donor perceptions of Kenya, long viewed as a society where corruption is pervasive.

Sources close to the government told IPS that it was extremely eager to present an upbeat picture of the country’s efforts to curb graft.

Gladwell Otieno, Executive Director of the Kenyan branch of Transparency International – a corruption watchdog – would not be drawn on this matter.

However, she said in an interview that government would do better to reward whistle-blowers than punish them: “It is…in government’s interest to work with people exposing graft. We cannot succeed in fighting corruption where constraints have been put on the flow of information.”

In what some view as another attempt to gag the media, Information and Tourism Minister Raphael Tuju formed a committee in March to probe the activities of a local radio station which had been critical of his water and development counterpart, Martha Karua. The station accused her of poor performance, and arrogance towards the press.

Initially, the committee included lawyers, KUJ officials, Media Owners Association Chairman Wilfred Kiboro and Tom Mshindi: Group Managing Director of East Africa Standard Limited, which owns a leading daily û the Standard. However the KUJ, Kiboro and Mshindi withdrew from the committee last month, citing concerns about government’s attitude towards the media.

David Makali – Managing Editor of the Standard – was also arrested last September for publishing excerpts of a police report that contained confessions by suspects in the murder of Crispin Mbai.

Mbai, a university don, also served as leader of a constitutional review committee that was discussing whether the presidency should be stripped of most of its powers. These would then be given to a prime minister.

The ruling National Rainbow Coalition (NARC) apparently supported this devolution of power in the run-up to the key December 2002 poll which unseated longstanding ruler Daniel arap Moi. However, it has since reversed its position.

There has been speculation that Mbai’s murder (in Sep. 2003) was linked to disputes surrounding the future status of the presidency – a belief doubtless fuelled by the fact that a member of parliament allied to the president was implicated in the confessions.

National Security Minister Chris Murungaru issued a strongly-worded statement describing the publication of the confessions as a “gross breach of the law”.

At present, Kenya’s constitution does not explicitly protect press freedom. The media operate under Section 79 of the document, which guarantees citizens freedom of expression.

Odero, who serves as Chairman of the East Africa Media Institute’s Kenya chapter, believes that parliament needs to beef up media rights by passing an act of that would give legal protection for press freedom.

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