February 7, 2018 / 3:45 PM / 6 months ago

Kenya crackdown on media, opposition attracts heavy criticism

NAIROBI (Reuters) - A top Kenyan newspaper published a fake death notice of a prominent opposition financier on Wednesday, a bizarre error that rights groups interpreted as another sign of an anti-democratic slide.

FILE PHOTO: Kenyan opposition leader Raila Odinga of NASA coalition escorted by businessman Jimi Wanjigi, gestures during a swearing-in ceremony as the president of the People's Assembly in Nairobi, Kenya January 30, 2018. Picture taken January 30, 2018. REUTERS/Thomas Mukoya/File Photo

The Daily Nation apologized by mid-morning for publishing the funeral announcement for businessman Jimi Wanjigi, whose picture, history and family details were used but whose name was slightly altered. The paper said the ad was published in error and it was working with police to uncover who placed it.

After a week of arrests of opposition politicians and a crackdown on independent media, a prominent rights campaigner said the announcement amounted to a death threat to Wanjigi, who funded opposition leader Raila Odinga’s election campaign last year and whose house was raided by police in October.

“It sounded like a threat to Jimi Wanjigi and must be understood as forming part of the intimidation to which the political opponents of Jubilee (the ruling party) are being subjected,” said George Kegoro, executive director of the Kenya Human Rights Commission.

Wanjigi was unavailable for comment.

Few Kenyans have forgotten the killing of Chris Msando, a top election official whose tortured body was found days before the Aug. 8 election. It is unclear why Msando was killed, but his death added to a climate of fear surrounding the vote.

The killing sent shockwaves through Kenya, a key Western ally in a volatile region.

Incumbent President Uhuru Kenyatta won the August poll, but the Supreme Court annulled the results on procedural grounds, forcing a repeat election on Oct. 26.

Odinga boycotted that contest because he said it would be unfair; Kenyatta won 98 percent of the vote.

Now Odinga claims he won the August election, although he has yet to produce credible evidence. Last Tuesday his supporters symbolically inaugurated him as president, provoking Kenyatta’s government into a much-criticized response.

GOVERNMENT BACKLASH

Since any move against Odinga would likely spark widespread street protests, the government focused on those around him. First, they shuttered three television stations planning to stream Odinga’s event live. The government justified the shutdown on security grounds.

Larry Madowo, a journalist at one of the stations, said the censorship “feels like the time when I was growing up under President Moi.”

Moi, a strongman who presided over decades of one-party rule, tortured his critics and presided over a government that became a byword for graft.

Since he left power in 2002, Kenya has become the region’s richest economy, with relative media freedom, regular multiparty elections and a vigorous public debate on governance.

Two of the stations that shut down are now back on air, but not until four days after a court order that their transmission should be restored. The censorship prompted criticism from the United States, Britain and the United Nations.

Three opposition figures have also been detained. Two were released on bail the same day. But firebrand lawyer Miguna Miguna was held incommunicado and charged with treason before being quietly deported to Canada on Tuesday night, despite an order to produce him in court on Wednesday.

In Odinga’s western strongholds, Miguna’s treason charges prompted demonstrations in which one person was killed on Tuesday.

The government argues Miguna lost his citizenship because he renewed his passport under old laws that forbade dual nationality. Lawyers maintain the government ignored due process and violated the country’s popular new 2010 constitution, which permits dual nationality. On Wednesday, Chief Justice David Maraga issued a rare rebuke to the government.

“Compliance with court orders is not an option for any individual or institution,” he wrote in a statement. “To disobey a court order is not only a violation of the Constitution but also a dereliction of public duty.”

OPPOSITION IN DISARRAY

So far, Kenyatta has not commented on Odinga’s inauguration as “people’s president”, and his spokesman did not return calls seeking comment on the crackdown. But veiled references appear in Kenyatta’s speeches.

“Elections are over, the people of Kenya have chosen their leaders,” Kenyatta said on Wednesday.

The crackdown has played into the hands of an opposition that had appeared in trouble, analysts say.

An opposition dossier presented as proof Odinga won the August election was debunked by a British IT expert and Kenya history author Charles Hornsby, who said it claimed some polling stations had a turnout exceeding 100 percent.

Several opposition leaders, some of whom hope to stand for the presidency in the next election, skipped Odinga’s inauguration. They had privately expressed misgivings over the event, diplomats said.

“There is so much theater going on,” said a Western diplomat. “Most of these are insiders who are doing this for political gain, for power. And the tragedy is that real young men end up dying on the streets.”

Odinga has yet to outline his strategy and failed to show up to a rally on Sunday.

But the crackdown has ensured that headlines focus on censorship, arrests and flouting of court orders instead of the opposition’s lack of direction.

“Kenyatta’s Jubilee government seems intent on wrecking every chance it gets of occupying the high ground,” read a note from research group NKC African Economics. “They have made a complete mess.”

Additional reporting by Maggie Fick; editing by Giles Elgood

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