- Kenyan authorities have changed their mind in the first-ever serious government attack on press freedom in the country. The criminal libel charges against a Kenyan investigative reporter, based on outdated legislation from the colonial era, have been dropped after massive local and international protest.
'The Standard' journalist Kamau Ngotho earlier this month was charged with criminal libel after writing about questionable ties between the country's business elite and the government of President Mwai Kibaki. It was the first time since independence that Kenyan authorities had charged a journalist based on this outdated legislation.
Last week, however, Kenya's attorney general decided to drop the criminal libel charge against Mr Ngotho. No reason was given by the attorney general's office for the sudden change of heart. It is however believed that the massive local and international pressure against President Kibaki's government had been a decisive factor.
Before the decision was taken to drop the case, Mr Ngotho had already won the right to be judged by Kenya's Constitutional Court instead of an ordinary court, due to the extraordinary use of legislation in the charges against him. He faced up to three years in prison if convicted.
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". Nevertheless, journalist Ngotho was formally charged with "publishing a defamatory article". The legislation dates back to the repressive British colonial rule and has never been used since the country's independence in 1963.
Protests to the rare incident rapidly occurred. Nine leading Western embassies in Nairobi 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. Other protests came from Kenya's National Commission on Human Rights and international press freedom organisations.
The decision to drop charges against Mr Ngotho was equally welcomed. Today, the Paris-based media watchdog group Reporters sans Frontières (RSF) said that the Kenyan attorney general had made the right decision.
- By taking this decision, Kenya proves that it is one of the few countries in Africa that is determined to ensure that press freedom is respected, RSF said in a statement. "The show of support by western embassies was exemplary and we would like to reiterate that this kind of initiative should be taken more often," the group added.
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