The Kenyan government was accused of mounting the biggest assault on freedom of expression in the country’s recent history on Wednesday after police arrested a leading opposition MP and attempted to detain three prominent journalists.
In scenes redolent of the dictatorial one-party era that ended with the Cold War, police stormed the headquarters of the Nation, Kenya’s biggest private media group, with arrest warrants for three of the country’s best known television personalities.
Although it was unclear what charges might be pressed against the reporters, the move was seen as part of a widening clampdown that has seen Kenya’s three largest television stations forced off the air.
Kenya’s interior minister accused the press of “complicity” in an attempt to “overthrow the legally constituted government” after it covered the unsanctioned swearing in of Raila Odinga, the opposition leader, as a parallel president.
Fred Matiang’i said that three media houses — Nation Television (NTV), Citizen Television and the Kenya Television Network — would remain shut down “until further notice”, the first such closure in the country’s history.
Kenya’s media council condemned the shutdown as “the greatest threat and assault on freedom of expression in Kenya’s recent history”.
With Kenya mired in its worst political crisis for a decade after two contentious elections last year, the government of Uhuru Kenyatta, the president, has adopted an increasingly uncompromising position towards the opposition.
The chief police target at NTV appeared to be Linus Kaikai, the station’s managing editor and chairman of the Editors’ Guild. Mr Kaikai released a statement on Tuesday disclosing that the president had summoned media managers and threatened to close down television stations that covered the opposition’s mock inauguration.
Police were also attempting to arrest Larry Madowo and Ken Mijungu, two popular news anchors, according to journalists at the Nation Centre who said they were trying to prevent their detention.
President Kenyatta’s re-election in August was overturned by Kenya’s supreme court, which cited “illegalities and irregularities” in his victory over Mr Odinga.
The president won the rerun, but only after Mr Odinga boycotted the vote, claiming that a failure to institute reforms made the second election no fairer than the first.
At least 90 people, mostly opposition supporters, have been shot dead by the police, according the government’s rights watchdog, in election-related violence since August.
The opposition puts the death toll at more than 300. Earlier on Wednesday, police also arrested Tom Kajwang, an opposition MP and lawyer who oversaw Mr Odinga’s swearing in, which was characterised by the government as an “act of treason”, which is punishable by hanging.
Mr Kajwang told the Daily Telegraph before the ceremony that his actions were “constitutionally protected,” claiming he did not fear arrest.
“There is no issue of treason either to the person who administers the oath or the person who takes it,” he said.
Mr Odinga, who insists he was cheated from assuming the presidency for the fourth time, chose to be sworn in by the symbolic title “people’s president”, rather than “president of the republic” in order to avoid treason charges.
It is unclear what charges Mr Kajwang, or the three journalists, face, nor is it clear whether the police will now attempt to arrest Mr Odinga — a move that could trigger a violent backlash by opposition supporting tribes.
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